24 September 2013

"Who Do I Have To Sleep with around Here to Get a Stoli Martini with a Twist of Lemon?"

I have had mixed experiences with the most recent clutch of Woody Allen films — I'm sure I'm not the only one — and of the recent clutch, my favourites are Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. As such, I was pleased to see such great early reviews of his latest film, Blue Jasmine, and even more pleased when I got a ticket to a free preview screening last night. But did the film live up to its promise? And is Cate Blanchett's performance really so outstanding?

Essentially, yes. Jasmine (Blanchett), a former New York socialite, is flying to San Francisco to stay with her estranged sister — first class, of course, although she has no money. On the plane, she chatters away, mostly to herself, sips martinis and pops the odd Xanax. Arriving in the taxi with her piles of Louis Vuitton luggage at her sister's apartment doesn't exactly involve any streetcars, regardless of their name, but there is more than a hint of Tennessee Williams both in the setting of the apartment (it looks like the Mission) and in the nuances in Blanchett's lilting drawl.

We soon meet Jasmine's sister Ginger (an excellent Sally Hawkins) and her two young sons, and we watch as Jasmine tries to get her feet in the new city, and in her new lifestyle. She ain't in Park Avenue any more, Toto. She hopes to be an interior designer but as she's never had a job before, let alone any relevant experience, she decides to take a computing course that will give her the skills to take an online design course. It makes perfect sense to Jasmine, who is post-nervous-breakdown and in a state of both depression and denial. Meanwhile, she turns her nose up at and openly criticises Ginger's boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), whom she thinks is beneath her sister.

Throughout all of this, Jasmine keeps drifting in and out of flashbacks of her past life in New York, where she was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin playing the character he always plays), a financier in the Bernie Madoff School of Investments. The story of their relationship and Jasmine's relationship with their now-estranged adoptive son (Alden Ehrenreich) is told only gradually, with a number of good twists and turns along the way. But just as Jasmine finally thinks she might have found the answer to all of her problems in the form of a handsome, kind billionaire with political ambitions (Peter Sarsgaard), she can't help but wonder what will happen if or when her past catches up on her.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Blue Jasmine is tightly scripted and well plotted. I wanted to know more about Jasmine's past, but I was also interested in watching her try — and fail — to be a "normal" working woman in San Francisco. The beauty of Blanchett's performance is that Jasmine is so utterly unlikeable — her character is selfish, thoughtless and shallow and has done, and will continue to do terrible things — and yet you find yourself almost rooting for her. When she meets her new love interest, you almost want things to work out for her, even though she needs help. A slap around the face wouldn't go amiss either.

The relationship between the two sisters works very well too: Ginger always jokes that Jasmine got the better genes (although they are adopted), but Ginger seems to be the happy one with her "shabby" (i.e. gorgeous) San Francisco apartment and the fun, if déclassé, boyfriend. The joke is really on Jasmine who still can't quite see that quitting her university degree to become Hal's trophy wife and achieving nothing apart from a great designer wardrobe for several decades doesn't maker her better than her sister.

Blue Jasmine is, perhaps, funnier than it ought to be given the subject matter, and it's a highly engrossing and entertaining film about a woman in crisis. If you're like me and were hoping for the Midnight in Paris treatment of the City by the Bay, you may be disappointed; save a view gorgeous views from Marin, the film isn't exactly a walking advert from the San Francisco tourist board. That's my only real complaint, though.

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