Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Haves and Have-Nots

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

At the end of Woody Allen's new film, Blue Jasmine (2013), my moviegoing companion turned to me and said: "Wow. That was totally Streetcar." She's right, of course. Blue Jasmine is consciously updating A Streetcar Named Desire for the Great Recession, but that's not all it has on its mind. It's just the framework. This is yet another portrait of the wreckage of late capitalism, seen this time from the point of view of the mighty who have fallen. It's a steep drop from the top of the world.

The story here follows Jasmine (nee, Janette), as she moves in with her sister after her financial tycoon husband is arrested for fiscal improprieties (this, of course, marks the film as a fantasy, but be that as it may...). Her husband, Hal, hangs himself in prison. The government dismantles his empire, discovering only debt and worthless deals. Jasmine is left with nothing but the clothes in her closet (admittedly, Chanel, etc.). Things are strained with her sister, Ginger. Ginger is a single mom with two kids and an ex-husband. The ex hates Jasmine and Hal for taking their nest egg and investing it in a disastrous real estate deal. Ginger seems to be over it. She's moving on. She has a new boyfriend who she has temporarily displaced in order to take in Jasmine. This is awkward for all involved. Jasmine, for her part, has to go to work in order to restart her life. She has a worthless almost degree in Anthropology and an impeccable sense of design and suffers from the shock of her husband's marital and financial infidelities. Interior design offers her clearest out, but she needs to go back to school for that, and she needs a job to pay for school. She ends up working for a lecherous dentist, but that goes south. Eventually, she meets an up and coming politician and they fall in love. He's the life preserver Jasmine has been looking for. Unfortunately, she hasn't been entirely truthful with him....

Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine

The central attraction of Blue Jasmine is the lead performance by Cate Blanchett. Come the spring, she's likely to be taking a podium to accept numerous rewards for her performance as the increasingly delusional Jasmine. It's the kind of performance that award voters like: emotional, unhinged, barely controlled tears, red eyes, red nose. All that's lacking is a dramatic weight loss. A friend of mine calls this style of performance "Streeping." Blanchett's variation on this style is to add a calculated touch of class. She's always had the air of an aristocrat even when slumming in movies like The Gift, The Missing, or Pushing Tin. It's not bad, per se, but it's manipulative. Fortunately for this film, it's all of a piece with the screenplay--Jasmine is totally an uppity aristocrat whose histrionics are completely calculated. It's crude but it works. A more unmannered performance comes from Sally Hawkins as Ginger, who provides an unforced naturalism. Intellectually, I realize that Hawkins's performance is every bit as constructed as Blanchett's--like Blanchett, she's doing an American accent--but I never caught her at it. And, realistically, neither Blanchett or Hawkins provide performances as broad as those given by Andrew Dice Clay as Augie, Ginger's ex, or Bobby Cannavale as her new beau, Chili. And there's also the non-performance by Louis CK as another of Ginger's beaux. And, hell, given the source material, a certain overheated theatricality is probably appropriate. It's funny enough.

Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine

The class divide in this movie is wide, and Allen exaggerates it by giving Ginger and Augie a veneer of blue collar American philistinism. They are a variant on the ugly American, ugly even in their own land. Allen sympathizes with them. Hell, he sides with them--they aren't nearly as morally bankrupt as Hal. But there's a certain New Yawk liberal discomfort with them. The character that Allen seems most at ease with is Hal's son, Danny, who has the breeding of wealth, but enough moral fiber to throw it all off in disgust. Not like Jasmine. Jasmine clings to her privilege--she flies first class even when she's broke--and schemes to regain it. This manifests itself in the film as madness and dipsomania. Jasmine guzzles vodka and pops Xanax like they're M&Ms and mutters to herself when she's not engaging with people in the here and now, lost in memories of hurt and betrayal and wealth. The way this deviates from Streetcar at the end is illustrative of the lot of the have-nots then and now: at the end of the play, Blanche DuBois is hauled off to a sanitarium, a social institution where she may theoretically get help. At the end of Blue Jasmine, Jasmine winds up as another nutter muttering to herself on a park bench. There is no net to catch her. There's no net to catch anyone anymore.

At some point last week, I sat down to re-watch Manhattan, which is not only one of Allen's more formally adventurous films, it's one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen.  It seems strange to me that the man who made Manhattan (and Zelig, too, for that matter) would make a film as visually flat as Blue Jasmine. This is a film where the people behind the camera are invisible. There is not obtrusive style, there is no visual panache. This is strictly reportorial. Oh, there's a flashback structure, true, but flashbacks are a basic element of film language these days. This movie is set in San Francisco, too, one of the movie-est cities on the planet. I can't help but think that it's missing something. Maybe it doesn't matter, though, because this is a movie that never takes its mind off its screenplay or its central performance. More style than it has might be a distraction. And for the most part it works. Its comedy--a bitterly black variety of comedy--gets its laughs and the end of the film sends the audience to the exit with a distinctly UN-happy ending. In that, at least, it takes a risk.


john said...

"This is a film where the people behind the camera are invisible." I loved your review and especially the quoted comment. My wife, Gretchen Davis, was one of those invisible people, running the makeup department and working on Cate every day. She has a lot of pride in her work and because the audience noticed Cate's deterioration and not the makeup that enabled those "looks" it proves she did a great job.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, John,