Movies Without Pity

Blue Jasmine: Oh, Streetcar!

by admin July 26, 2013 5:50 am
Blue Jasmine: Oh, Streetcar!

If you want to see what capital-A Acting looks like, take a gander at Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen's latest feature, Blue Jasmine. As the title character, an absurdly wealthy New York socialite forced to drastically downsize her life after her swindling husband (Alec Baldwin) is unmasked as a Madoff-like fraud, Blanchett is a whirlwind of nervous tics and harried mannerisms, having clearly embraced the "more is more" -- as opposed to "less is more" -- school of film performance. In that respect at least, she's carrying on the tradition of the broadly neurotic hero that Allen used to portray in movie after movie. But where Allen's persona was generally of sound mind despite his occasionally questionable behavior, Jasmine's general flibbertigibbet-ness comes from her increasingly shaky hold on reality in the wake of her fall from societal grace. As the movie continues and Blanchett's performance grows more manic than comic, the dark secret of her character is laid bare: we're not watching Jasmine… this is Blanche freakin' DuBois!

The Streetcar Named Desire signifiers aren't just limited to Blanchett (who played Blanche in an acclaimed stage production that originated in her native Australia and then toured the U.S.); you’ve also got Sally Hawkins channeling the self-esteem challenged Stella as Jasmine's sister, Ginger, whose crowded San Francisco pad her once-wealthy sibling crashes in having fled New York. And hey, look over there at Bobby Cannavale, striding into frame clad in a wife-beater shirt he probably borrowed from the Marlon Brando estate to play Ginger's working class boyfriend, Chili, who doesn't take too kindly to Jasmine's home invasion. And you'd best believe that Allen makes a point of sticking one of the Bay Area's world-famous, hill-climbing streetcars into at least one scene.

So yes, it's safe to say that any resemblance to the Tennessee Williams play is intentional, rather than accidental. But as devoted Woody-ites know, homage has often played a role in his films, from the hilarious Bergman spoofery in Love and Death to the unofficial remake that was Stardust Memories to the straight-out-of-Ealing Studios set-up for Small Time Crooks. What makes Allen's interpretations of these works of art homage rather than mere stealing is that he usually attempts to filter his influences through his own distinct vision and set of interests. In the case of Blue Jasmine, he's zeroed in specifically on the class divide that runs underneath Streetcar and links that to the public anger over the present-day economic chicanery perpetrated by folks like Bernie Madoff. Furthermore, where Williams sees no small amount of tragedy in Blanche's downfall, the perpetually cynical Allen has very little sympathy for his heroine, who he explicitly positions as the architect of her own destruction. The willfully ignorant have always been one of the director's favorite targets and that's precisely the category Jasmine falls into: having abandoned whatever career aspirations she might have had after meeting her husband in college, she's deliberately blinded herself to how he earns the money to keep her in the lap of luxury, not to mention whatever "extracurricular activities" he might engage in when traveling for "business." By fleeing for the West Coast, Jasmine hopes to construct a new fantasy for herself -- and almost does when she falls for a handsome diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard) on the hunt for a trophy wife as he prepares to launch a political career -- only to have reality smack her harshly across the face at every turn.

Blanchett suffers through the various indignities Allen heaps upon her Blanche surrogate -- which include, but aren't limited to being hit on by a skeevy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg), getting told off by Ginger's ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay, improbably delivering one of the best performances in the movie) and talking to herself in public while others uncomfortably look on -- with a sustained intensity that's at once both vaguely embarrassing and rather moving. To be honest, Allen's close-up heavy camerawork doesn't favor the kind of performance that Blanchett delivers here, which is filled with the kinds of big gestures that play better on stage, where there's some distance between the audience and the actor. Furthermore, Jasmine begins the film in such a state of near-insanity, there's nowhere really for Blanchett to take the character; even the flashbacks to her days as a member of the glitterati are designed to foreshadow the breakdown that's about to hit her like a freight train. That she's able to keep us engaged in Jasmine's plight anyway is a testament to her consummate skill as a performer and Allen's admirable ability to write profoundly unsympathetic characters who nevertheless remain compelling (see also: Crimes & Misdemeanors and Match Point). As respectable -- if not especially accomplished -- a film as Blue Jasmine is, though, when it comes to Streetcar knock-offs, there's just no substitute for "A Streetcar Named Marge."

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