MOVIE REVIEW: Blue Jasmine



I hate to say this, but it's hard to get behind a movie with an unlikable main character.  Call me a chipper optimist at heart, but, unless we are getting the classic "change of heart" story or a "you get what you deserve" comeuppance tale of returned karma, I feel like I waste my time trying to engage and get behind negative main characters.  As a novice movie critic with a good eye for the big picture and all of a movie's moving parts, I can compliment and give kudos all day on the peripheral details around that rotten core and value and appreciate the actor or actress's excellent performance at the ugly center of said movie, but those films never win me over.

The last time I felt this distinct feeling towards a negative central movie character was Jason Reitman's 2011 misstepYoung Adultstarring Charlize Theron as an abhorrent former high school bitch with her upturned nose towards anyone that isn't impressed by her.  I love the director's work (Up in the Air, Juno, Thank You for Smoking).  I love Patton Oswalt's great supporting schlub and the Minnesota setting.  Charlize Theron dove head first into a dark and completely ugly character and nailed it.  She earned a Golden Globe nomination.  I thought she deserved an Oscar nomination.  After all of that, I can't back the movie.  I want to, but I can't.

I have the exact same problem with the latest film from Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine, now making its way from limited release to a wider audience.  Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett plays Jeanette "Jasmine" Francis, the former Park Avenue trophy wife of Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin), a Wall Street white collar crook who swindled millions and was finally caught red-handed.  His arrest, incarceration, and later prison suicide has left his well-to-do wife with nothing, a place and idea she doesn't know the meaning of.

Fueled by vodka, Zanex, and designer labels, we meet this piece-of-work talking the ear off of an old lady in first class on a cross-country flight from New York to San Francisco.  She has become the crazy woman that bends the truth to her fashion to anyone who will listen and also those that don't want to.  Despite looking at zero hope in her future, Jasmine sees nothing wrong with her behavior or frivolous needs.  She's bent on post-nervous breakdown ambition to seek out help from her fellow adopted sister Ginger (Happy Go-Lucky's Sally Hawkins).

Ginger is a grocery store clerk and mother of two boys with nothing remotely fancy to compare with Jasmine.  As a matter of fact, Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (longtime stand-up comedian relic Andrew Dice Clay, who unexpectedly plays it straight) were two of the many people who lost everything by Hal's mismanaged financial investing.  As the better person, Ginger puts Jasmine up in a small apartment above a Mexican bar in town until she can get back on her high-heeled feet.

Throughout the film, during key moments, Allen flashes back to show moments in Hal and Jasmine's superficial marriage that led to her present circumstances.  As she butts into Ginger's life, Jasmine continues to look down on her lesser sister and judge her choices of men, including Ginger's current fiance Chili (Bobby Cannavale).  She attempts to take college classes on computers and gets a job as a receptionist at a dentist's office for the clingy Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg of Lincoln and A Serious Man).  When Jasmine brings Ginger to a decadent Bay Area party, a new possible meal ticket presents itself in budding politician Dwight Westlake (Peter Sarsgaard, completely unrecognizable from when I last saw him in Lovelace) and even Ginger finds a tempting suitor (Louis C.K., also playing it straight).

I'll go back to the Young Adult comparison.  I admire Woody Allen.  He makes challenging and character-driven comedies and dramas that no one else makes anymore.  Not all of them work, but they are worth the effort.  He's his own niche brand.  Like so many of my generation who came along after Allen's hey-day, I too rekindled my appreciation for his work with 2011's Midnight in Paris.  

Since going international with his films over the last decade (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream, Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love), Allen has built on his knack for getting great performances from star-studded ensembles and putting other people than himself in the lead roles he usually handles.

That said, are we surprised Alec Baldwin can play an aloof rich man from one of his credit card commercials or that Bobby Cannavale can play another loud Italian stereotype?  No.  It's nice, but is it inconceivable that Allen can get Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. to turn off their crass and play it straight?  Not really.

The one towering achievement of Blue Jasmine that is worth your attention is the lead performance of Cate Blanchett.  Like the Charlize Theron example, she dives head first into this despicable and pathetic role and wrings it out for every drop of detail.  You will love to hate Jasmine and that's the goal.  The Jasmine role is the quintessential "Nervous Nelly" part of Woody Allen lore.  If the character were male, this would be one he would play with his usual stammering gusto.  As a female, this is something Diane Keaton or Judy Davis would eat up, but still not be this good.  Cate Blanchett is and has always been one of best working lead actresses of this generation.  She never gives a bad performance, even with a bad Russian accent in a terrible Indiana Jones movie.  Cate has won and lost Oscars for huge roles, but this little maddening microcosm of unhinged nerve and total ambivalence might be her best and most invested performance of her career to date.  She's nothing short of brilliant all by herself.  If her name is not on a list with four other women next February, then something is wrong with the Academy.

Taken as a whole, Blue Jasmine is a perplexing unfunny comedy and undramatic drama.  It's being classified as a drama, but nothing is all that moving.  It's being marketed as a quirky comedy with its comedian-peppered cast, but nothing elicits much laughter.  Sure, the writing and dialogue are outstanding and the performers have crafted terrific little characters, but that's par for the course when it comes to Woody Allen.  Other than Blanchett's amazing talent, this movie is completely unmemorable.  This one can wait for a Redbox buck.  Go re-rent Midnight in Paris again instead.

LESSON #1: THE UTTER USELESSNESS OF MOST WEALTHY WOMEN-- I might be painting with a bit of a broad brush, but let's be honest and dip some slanderous paint.  How many trophy wives can step down and operate in the domestic setting the rest of us live in every day, moving paycheck to paycheck?  What really is rock bottom for the Park Avenue 1%?  If it's leeching off of your reputation, medicating yourself to forget your mistakes, crying over generic things instead of designer things, burdening your sister, gold-digging another marriage of privilege, and never getting the point about class differences, then you have useless Jasmine.  Honey, you don't know the meaning of the word "burden."

LESSON #2: FORGETTING AND MOVING ON WITHOUT CORRECTING OR LEARNING FROM MISTAKES-- After seeing what Jasmine is all about in Lesson #2, what makes her even worse is her complete obliviousness to both her own behavior and the mistakes being perpetrated around her.  While others around her question her level of involvement, she literally took no meaningful measure of interest or knowledge in her husband's business affairs as long as they afforded her the lifestyle she was accustomed to.  She didn't ask and didn't care.  Therefore, once that lifestyle was gone, she continued that selective memory towards moving forward, gaining no meaningful knowledge to correct or change herself and learned no lesson at all from her mistakes.  Sorry, but add me to the long list of people that don't feel sorry for you.

LESSON #3: EVERYONE HAS A DIFFERENT LEVEL OF HAPPINESS THEY SEEK IN THEIR LIFE-- If you take Jasmine's self-centered exterior away, deep down she does aim to make people happy and be happy herself.  She doesn't know how, but she means to.  In what stands as the emotional center of this film, Jasmine tries to impose a bit of supposedly wise sisterly influence in spending this much time with Ginger.  Jasmine's negative put-downs and snap judgments towards Ginger's modest looks, small possestions, and the men she keeps in her life are a way, albiet a terrible one, for Jasmine trying to help someone else see what their happiness should be.  What Jasmine does (kind of) learn from Ginger is that happiness comes in different forms, strengths, and levels for different people.  Not everyone aspires for the same things that make Jasmine happy.