Wise, witty, dark and cynical - Allen’s latest is a hauntingly resonant reflection on mental illness
824Wise and witty, dark and cynical, Woody Allen’s latest production is a hauntingly resonant little reflection on mental illness – in particular nervous breakdowns – featuring easily the greatest performance in Cate Blanchett’s career. In classic Allen tradition the set-up feels much like a stage play, which is little surprise when you realise that it’s basically a loose adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s classic A Streetcar Named Desire, just given a modern spin.
The films of Woody Allen may not all be to everybody’s tastes, but Blue Jasmine transcends any kind of pigeon-holing, and rides high on the shoulders of Blanchett’s powerhouse lead performance, painting a wonderful portrait of delusions of grandeur and slow-burning mental self-destruction, set against the topical backdrop of Ponzi-scheme style financial fraud. It’s quintessentially Woody Allen, and yet not in any kind of an invasive way – not in a way that obstructs his earnest desire to study this particular mental breakdown – but in the trademark wit and neuroticism.
"Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown; there's only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming."
Most people know somebody who has been touched by mental illness, whether through manageable depression, or difficulties which require medical intervention, but few films accurately portray mental breakdowns building up to full tilt. There are some great themes and innovative ideas injected into bigger-picture movies, from Nolan's Inception to Scorsese's elaborate Shutter Island, but often the disabling extreme idiosyncrasies of the lead characters have to be tempered with more glamorous elements that make you root for them in spite of their problems (just like Rain Manwas a high functioning genius, rather than a more traditionally portrayed autistic case). It can just become too bleak otherwise, too real.
Last year's Silver Linings Playbook offered up an honest look at the subject matter, and consequently provided us with easily the best performance in Bradley Cooper's career (not to mention Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro), yet it still used mental illness as a background for the characters; we were watching life after the event - after the breakdown - not during it. Blue Jasmine takes us right to the front line, painting such an honest and realistic portrayal that you hope that it is actually just some grand nightmare; the reality is often too painful to bear.
Jasmine is an arrogant, egotistical, holier-than-thou Manhattan socialite. She believes that she had everything - the perfect husband, the perfect house, the perfect life - and that her sudden homelessness and financial destitution merely represent a blip in her life; a pause until she can reclaim all that supposed wealth, glory and status. Until then, she's staying with her working class sister in a cluttered apartment located in a poor part of San Francisco. Her whole life is a sham, and always has been, but coming to terms with that fact has been an impossible task. Her hotshot husband has been arrested for massive fraud at a federal level - taking money for false investments, even including every penny of the small windfall that her sister won; and her properties have been seized and her bank accounts frozen because nobody believes that she couldn't have possibly known about it. Hell, even her sister is just an adopted sibling and the name Jasmine isn't even her own.
"You choose losers because that's what you think you deserve and that's why you'll never have a better life."
Yet after spending so many years living the high life, she's come to accept the lies, denying to herself her husband's fraud and flagrant infidelity; evading and avoiding her sister when she comes to visit them (because she's not the right 'class') and presuming her sizeable social circle is founded upon supposedly genuine friendships. When her world falls apart she is unprepared for the drop to the bottom, still believing that she deserves to be at the top. Hell, she even dismisses her sister's romantic choices because she 'always picks losers', so delusional that she does not even take a moment to see the choices that she made in life.
Get a job? Well, sweetie, I'm not suitable for every job, it's not like I can be a waitress! What qualifications do you have? Well, I nearly finished my degree but then I met my husband and became a socialite. What would you like to do? I think I'd be good at interior design. How can you afford to take classes to qualify as an interior designer? I'll do them cheaply on the computer. Can you use a computer? No. Um, I guess I'll have to take classes for that then...
There's a huge level of incredulity that can be levelled at the thoughts and actions of the lead character, Jasmine. Indeed, Woody Allen finds striking wit and undeniable laughs in positing the complete polar opposite to the kinds of characters that he himself cut his teeth on playing. Although every bit as neurotic, Allen is known for his biting, self-deprecating non-ego; it's not only a source of humour but also the way in which he becomes surprisingly charming. Jasmine, on the other hand, is a pure walking ego, and one founded upon nothing; utterly delusional about her own importance - she presumes that she deserves the world, and that accepting anything less would be below her stature. It's insane. Even broke, homeless and forced to live with a sister she barely knows (who isn't even a blood relation!), she still reveals that she travelled First Class to get there.
"The flight was bumpy, the food was awful and, you'd think First Class..."
"I thought you were tapped out."
"I'm dead broke. The Government took everything. But it's so cramped in coach. And I still have my credit cards."
Of course Allen isn't playing this just for laughs, the comedy is a side-effect; the dialogue - the story - is pure tragedy, and an expert reflection on depression and mental illness. It's positively ingenious how Allen masterfully exposes the root of Jasmine's distress through a series of chronological flashbacks, crafting an almost suspenseful investigation which eventually reaches a powerfully resonant conclusion. After all, there's normally a key moment when somebody cracks and, more often than not, it is often a horrific mistake on the part of the person who has the breakdown - a single misstep which has tragic consequences; a decision made so devastating that the person may then block out ever having made it, lest the weight of being utterly to blame come crashing down and drown them. By exposing the truth in piecemeal fashion over the course of the narrative, Allen wonderfully reflects the very nature of the illness - denial - effectively denying us the truth until the very last moment.
It would be inexcusable for lead actress Cate Blanchett not to at least be Nominated for her undeniably Oscar-worthy performance here. Although not wholly unlike her excellent, and also Award-Winning portrayal of Katherine Hepburn in Scorsese's outstanding Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, Blanchett's Jasmine is even more refined, and considerably more tragic. She thoroughly embraces the delusion-defined role, and offers up a character who is far from sympathetic - she treats everybody like they are less worthy than her, and it's actually only in brief moments where she uncontrollably starts to talk to herself that you ever come close to feeling sorry for her; it's these moments, after all, when you realise the true extent of her illness.
Sally Hawkins is great as her down-to-earth adopted sister, Bobby Cannavale impresses as the sister's red-blooded fiancée (the equivalent role would be Brando's in A Streetcar Named Desire, but Allen cleverly picks a lesser-known actor to underplay the importance of this character, allowing the dynamic to shift in favour of Blanchett's Jasmine), Andrew Dice Day puts in quite a transformed role as Ginger's ex-husband, who was rightfully less forgiving when it came to the loss incurred by the fraud of Jasmine's husband, and Peter Sarsgaard is on slick form as a potential beau who Jasmine feels can bring her back into high society, if she plays him right.
"When your sister had all that money, she wanted nothing to do with you. Now that she's broek, all of a sudden she's moving in!"
"She's not just broke. She's all screwed up."
Alec Baldwin, though, threatens to steal the whole show, even though his character is only actually seen in flashback. Baldwin actually took the Brando role both on stage and in an acclaimed TV mini-series adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, but here he plays arguably an even more important role (for Allen's variation on the play) as Jasmine's husband. Utterly convincing as the Clooney-esque charmer who brazenly woos younger women and seduces potential financial victims in plain view of his I-choose-to-deny-it wife, he's the biggest scumbag you could imagine. A remorseless and relentless liar and cheat, we're given absolutely no insight into what makes him do the things he does but one has to assume that it's part of his own psychological disorder, namely sociopathy. It's a brilliant bit of theatricality from Baldwin, playing everybody else like pawns, and you can see why so many fall for his charms. As much as most of us have a mentally troubled person or two in our lives, I'm sure we ALL know somebody who is an utter sociopath, but who is also just so damn smooth and charming that they get away with everything but literal murder.
Although it is a very intimate, small-scale story, with a backdrop that, whilst topical, everybody must still be familiar with (even if you don't know what a Ponzi scheme is, the notorious fraudster's last name is still synonymous with large-scale financial scams), the expert insight into mental illness, razor-sharp dialogue, and top tier performances simply dictate that this film must be seen. And don't get too caught up with the Streetcar comparisons; Allen's script owes an undeniable debt of gratitude to Tennessee Williams's rock-solid foundations, but the alternative perspective and contemporary updating turn this into an original piece in its own right; one of Allen's finest in years.
Perhaps not everybody will be rushing out to see it at the cinemas but that doesn't make Blue Jasmine any less of a shining little gem so, however you get to see it, just make sure that you do.
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