Friday, November 15, 2013

Woody's Blue Period (Film Review of "Blue Jasmine") by Alison Ross

Woody Allen is a favorite director of mine, but I must admit that the first few phases of his output - from the 1960s through the mid-90ss - sit more comfortably with me than his latter-day output, from 1998 on. He has had a few semi-masterful strokes during this latter-day period - "Match Point," "Vicki Cristina Barcelona" - and some critical praise for mixed masterpieces like "Midnight in Paris" (I enjoyed the concept but the execution could have been more dynamic), but overall his latter-day output cannot even hope to reach the luminary status of "Sleeper," Love," "September," and so on.

If Woody wouldn't keep insisting on making one movie per year, and took his time with his more recent films, perhaps his latter-day output would not be marred with so many dubious duds. As it is, even the good films, like "Vicky Cristina," are lackluster generic fare compared to the signature idiosyncrasies so rife in his Golden Era films. A Woody Allen film is supposed to be a distinctive entity, immediately recognizable, and as competent as, say, "Match Point" was, it barely contained any hints of his trademark quirks.

Allen's last truly great film was "Deconstructing Harry," made in 1997. This, of course, is an opinion, but I think it's a defensible opinion because it was one that boasted in abundance the things that distinguish Good Woody from Mediocre Woody: slapstick humor, fully fleshed out characters, humorous stereotypes, self-loathing, illicit and adulterous sex, religious doubt, clever banter, serious thematic content executed with over the top hilarity...

Of course, those are the traits that define a humorous Woody flick. A more serious one has its own set of definitive traits. And I would argue that the serious Woody fare of late is also not up to par with his earlier iconic films.

Woody's latest film, "Blue Jasmine: (a comedy-drama), however, comes close to parallelling his earlier output, at least on initial viewing. Perhaps subsequent viewings would reveal glaring flaws. I can only go on what I saw the first time.

"Blue Jasmine" tells the story of a New York woman whose marriage to a wealthy executive enables her to live a lavish life of luxury shopping and gourmet dining. When her husband is jailed for fraud, she slips into destitution and must live with her less well-off sister, Ginger, on the opposite coast.

This is the first time that Jasmine has had to make her own living, and so naturally she fumbles in her efforts. Such destitution and desperation have made her mentally mad, and so throughout the film we see flashes of her mania, in the form of her babbling incoherently to herself.

Jasmine does manage to meet another wealthy man and for a time things are looking promising, but when her new beau finds out she has lied about her past, naturally their relationship dissipates.

Intermingling with all of this is the subplot of her Ginger's own comvoluted love affairs, and the contrast between her sister's complacent resignation toward her lower middle class status and Jasmines's constant coveting of a higher class status. Furthermore, Jasmine resents her sister's more genuine outlook toward life, while Jasmine herself has an artificial approach toward things, owing to her money-laden past.

"Blue Jasmine" is bristling with themes related to class status and family cohesiveness. On the one hand, the family is fractured because of the disparity in how money is regarded (for Jasmine, its importance is inflated as a vehicle toward a luxurious life, which for her is tantamount to happiness; for Ginger, money is a more practical matter). On the other hand, Jasmine's lack of money is what brings the two sisters together again.

These primary themes are treated compellingly in "Blue Jasmine," with each character's performance in equal measure humorous and grave. Indeed, infamously profane comedian Andrew Dice Clay gives an unexpected quietly dramatic turn as Ginger's former husband. And Sally Hawkins as Ginger nearly eclipses Cate Blanchette's Jasmine, as Hawkins turns in a nuanced performance in direct porportion to Cate's which, though stunning in its way, is executed with more obvious histrionics.

"Blue Jasmine" may not reach the euphoric highs of Woody Allen's past ouvre, but it comes damn close, and in my view is the best film of his latter-day phase. It may not be overflowing with his signature tricks, but there are enough Woody Allen identifiers in this film to obliterate the faux-Woody flicks that he has been churning out of late.

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