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Blue Jasmine

I knew next to nothing about Blue Jasmine going in. I only knew that it was a Woody Allen movie starring Cate Blanchett, presumably as the film’s standard “Woody Allen” character. I also knew that the film had a whopping 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, so it probably had a good reputation. But the film’s massive buzz didn’t really hit me until I had arrived at the Fox Tower.

The show that I came for was sold out. The line for the next showing was already getting started, and eventually wound its way through the entire theater. When that line had been cleared out, the line for the next showing was in place. I had never seen anything like this. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard someone tell me “Sorry, that show is sold out.” Even with the biggest Hollywood blockbusters being played in the biggest Portland multiplexes, I had never seen lines this huge go one right after the other. And this reception was for a limited release being played in a downtown arthouse.

I had no idea what I was in for, and I really hoped that the film was good enough to justify all of this. Luckily, it was. Blue Jasmine was totally worth the buzz.

This film tells the story of Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), a woman who dropped out of college to marry a charming and handsome man who somehow fell into her life. Hal (Alec Baldwin) enjoys his career of using real estate deals to make immense fortunes while Jasmine spends it all like some trophy wife. The two spend several years of wedded bliss together — in spite of Hal’s rampant adultery — until Hal is arrested on various charges of fraud. He’s eventually sent to prison, where he kills himself some time later.

Meanwhile, the government has confiscated pretty much everything of value, leaving Jasmine homeless and without a penny to her name. Even worse, all of this drama has given Jasmine a mental break, to the point where she was found wandering the streets and babbling to herself until the authorities came to pick her up. Eager to put all of this behind her and start a new life, Jasmine flies to live with her adoptive sister (Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco.

Her flight, by the way, was in first class. Don’t ask me how Jasmine managed to get a first-class transcontinental flight without any money, because even Jasmine doesn’t seem to know that.

Ginger, meanwhile, has been having a few problems of her own. See, she and her now-ex-husband (Augie, played by Andrew Dice Motherfucking Clay, of all people) won a few hundred grand in the lottery a few years back. They were eager to start a new business with the money, until Jasmine told them about a great investment opportunity with Hal. So they ended up losing everything they had, right along with Jasmine.

The point being that Ginger isn’t exactly living a stable life either. Even so, she’s got a job bagging groceries, she’s got a new loving boyfriend, and she’s got a modest apartment (From what I understand about San Francisco real estate, by the way, even a little hole of an apartment like that is a huge accomplishment.). But of course, Jasmine scoffs at the menial job, argues that Ginger deserves a better apartment, and thinks that the new boyfriend (inexplicably named Chili, played by Bobby Cannavale), is a no-account bum.

Because, you know, Jasmine has proven that she knows so much about good lifestyle choices, potential husbands, and how to keep a relationship going.

For Jasmine and for Ginger, this movie is all about starting fresh and letting go of the past. Unfortunately, part of that process is in accepting responsibility and making amends for past transgressions. Ginger has an easier time of this, though it still takes her a while to get to that point. Jasmine, on the other hand, probably can’t even spell “responsibility.”

Instead of coming clean to new acquaintances about her background, she’d much rather tell a boldfaced lie about her departed husband and come up with some flimsy justification for it later. Ginger, Augie, and Chili all talk about how Hal was a rotten crook who took everything away from them, yet Jasmine refuses to show any sympathy because in her mind, she did nothing wrong. Jasmine is clearly shown to be psychologically unstable, but she never seeks professional help or talks to anyone about her problems. She’d much rather pop some pills, get drunk, and call it good. And naturally, that just makes her insanity all the worse. There are times when she’s so far gone that it’s hard to tell whether or not she’s aware of the lies coming from her mouth.

Jasmine has absolutely no marketable skills, but she thinks that entry-level work is beneath her. She wants to go back to school, but her anthropology degree would still be worthless even if she bothered to complete it. Also, she has no idea what else to study, and she doesn’t want to put in the time or money that more education would require. Basically, she wants to get back to the luxurious and carefree life that she enjoyed with her husband. That her previous life was completely false and built on a house of cards seems to have escaped her.

On the other hand, this character is far from completely unsympathetic. After all, she has to start completely from scratch at the age of forty-something, which would be a hard predicament for anyone. Delusional pride notwithstanding, Jasmine is a woman who’s trying to find herself, which is a situation that anyone could relate to. Plus, there’s a very real argument that Hal’s crimes and her current poverty are not her fault. Then again, we see for ourselves that Jasmine made herself into a wilfully ignorant accomplice, and we also learn that she directly caused her husband’s downfall in a way that I won’t describe here.

When you get right down to it, Jasmine is stuck in a midlife crisis. In fact, she’s having what may be the worst midlife crisis in history. And she’s having psychological problems that are well outside of her control.

The resulting balance is quite fascinating. It’s easy to root for the character, but there’s still a sense that Jasmine deserves everything bad that happens to her. For instance, there are multiple times when Jasmine is presented with a possible love interest. I was torn every time this happened. I thought “Good for them! I really hope this works out and he straightens Jasmine out somewhat.” But at the same time, I also thought “Get out of there, brother! You have no idea how far over your head you are.”

Of course, what really makes Jasmine work is Cate Blanchett’s portrayal. Blanchett goes through the whole movie playing Jasmine with the perfect mix of humor, pity, and drunken craziness. She gets whole monologues in this movie, and succeeds in making every line either heartbreaking, hilarious, or both. Blanchett is not afraid to make herself look haggard in this role, which does a lot to express how far this woman has sunk. What’s even better is when Jasmine is dressed in so many fancy clothes, but she looks like absolute shit and she’s mumbling nonsense with a thousand-yard stare. Blanchett’s committed performance makes the contrast so much more delicious.

Cate Blanchett is on fire in this movie, but the other actors are hardly slouches, either. Sally Hawkins does a great job selling Ginger’s gradual discovery of her own self-confidence. Alec Baldwin is of course laughably sleazy as Hal. Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. both turn in some surprisingly good dramatic work, though their skill with comedic timing comes in handy on occasion. Bobby Cannavale does a great job at playing a charming low-life, and it was a nice change of pace seeing Peter Sarsgaard play a completely sympathetic character who has everything figured out. In fact, he may be the only such character in this entire picture.

Of course, Woody Allen deserves a great deal of praise as well. His screenplay is absolutely brilliant, with wonderfully nuanced characters and lines that fly off the page. The dialogue and the actors create wonderful chemistry that powers the film’s comedy and romance aspects. As for the visuals, I found it interesting that the film was shot so brightly. Allen even went so far as to drench several sets, costumes, and props in yellow hues, to make everything that much brighter. I found that this gave the film a sort of lighthearted tone, though it also helped Allen’s signature landscape shots.

Blue Jasmine is funny, romantic, and very smart. The film is loaded with interesting and nuanced characters, and the plot is nicely unpredictable (though the film’s non-linear storytelling helps in that regard). The actors are all wonderful, but Cate Blanchett’s performance alone merits a strong recommendation. Don’t let this one pass you by.

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