Woody Allen’s second ticket to the Oscars is a far cry from Midnight in Paris, the legendary director’s earlier, yet relatively recent Oscar entry back in 2011. Rambunctious, angry and tired, Blue Jasmine tells a darker, sadder story… one that doesn’t end in a pleasant walk in the rain set to Parisian jazz. From start to finish, Midnight in Paris is a pleasant film– location shots captured at their most gorgeous make the film seem to make the film more like a love letter to the country punctuated by well-chosen Parisian-esque instrumentals. The same hint of glamor exists in Blue Jasmine, but is not paid tribute to in much the same way. Instead, Allen chooses to play with contrasts in his latest work, pitting scenes of Jasmine Francis’ fairytale past with her dreary, unpleasant present.
Blanchett is the film’s neurotic lead Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis. A former trophy wife turned obvious nutcase, she moves in with half sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) at the start of the film after things fall apart for her in New York. Jasmine’s husband Hal (a perfectly cast Alec Baldwin) turns out to be a philanderer instead of a philanthropist, a thief instead of a businessman, and the government has taken everything: leaving her with less than a fourth of what she used to have while living the high life. Jasmine struggles to adjust to her less than glamorous new life, which involve taking a job in order to support herself and having to deal with the worst people. She gets a second chance at a good life when multimillionaire Dwight (a surprising Peter Skaarsgard, haven’t seen him act in a while), falls for her, but things fall apart once more when she runs into her sister’s ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) while shopping for an engagement ring.
Many critics have called Blue Jasmine a career best for Cate Blanchett. As someone not familiar with her extensive filmography (I saw her last doing a pretty bad impression of a female Nazi in the rusty Indiana Jones reboot), I have to say that it’s one of her better films, and definitely a step up from her role in the Aviator a few years back. Blanchett may not have went down the ‘physical transformation’ route, but did a surprisingly good job of looking like an absolutely convincing nutcase (I wouldn’t be surprised if she prepared for the role by seeing a few Real Housewives episodes). Her transition from high life to rock bottom, when seen on film, is logical and not contrived, real and not forced. Hawkins’ Ginger on the other hand, is a shaky, unsure geek who needs to keep her bra strap hidden. She lacked any visible chemistry with the boys cast as her adoptive children (so what if they were adopted), and seemed to be on the verge of perpetual tears. The point may come in the film when she goes from flat to round character, but its so short-lived and cut off that it becomes forgettable. So what if in real life she’s a well-educated, put together Briton with a polished accent? I wasn’t that big a fan of her portrayal of Ginger. Dice Clay lacked the screen time to shine, but had some potential to snatch a supporting actor nod as Augie, Ginger’s ill-fated ex husband who also happens to be one of Hal’s victims. Baldwin plays his ‘bit’ part in the film well, but seems an uncharacteristic choice to commit suicide in prison (thankfully, Allen made the smart move of not showing this scene in the film). Peter Skaarsgard is the gem of the film. He may share bit part duties with Baldwin but he shines as Dwight, exuding the sophisticated charm of his character quite well (I’m surprised he never appeared on Gossip Girl).
Woody Allen’s skillful use of contrast in storytelling is a hallmark of his rare talent. By juxtaposing the appropriate flashbacks of Jasmine’s high life with their present day counterparts, he avoids the exhaustion that comes with predictable trips to the past. Instead, the flashbacks become a part of the story’s framework, effectively weaving together the past in order to explain the present. No scene is unnecessary, as it seems like each frame has been carefully chosen to tell a complete story in the most concise way possible. The film even starts and ends with the same scene: Jasmine talking to herself while sitting next to a random person, further emphasizing the storybook effect that the film seems to be going for.
Blue Jasmine is probably one of the shorter entries to this year’s Academy Awards. Brief yet packed with plot, it is a film that comes in and does its job no questions asked: leaving the viewer satisfied with a complete story in less than two hours (a rare feat in the era of films that have become notoriously long). It’s acting successes are not ensemble efforts: instead the film owes due credit to a laudable lead and well-casted support roles. Writing wise, it features on spot dialogue flawlessly brought to life by Blanchett onscreen, but is not a standout Allen script (although they still nominated him for an Original Screenplay Oscar).
Not the best but good enough, Blue Jasmine is perfect for the filmgoer tired of Hollywood’s lengthy offerings and desperately in search of an entertaining film for half the size.