For the first time this year, I went into a theatre with the expectation/hope that I might see something great. As it turned out, I did and I didn’t.
The “did” is Cate Blanchett. It’s not so much she gives a great performance. It’s that she was handed one of the meatiest roles any actress has had in this decade, and, being a great talent, she lives fully up to it. She plays a self-deluding, entitled, on-the-verge-of-breakdown society woman reduced to penury; as the film progresses, we saw the stages of her loss, and learn the extent of her complicity in it. All of this gives her one wonderful acting opportunity after another -- there’s no point trying to single out an Oscar clip: the entire role is an Oscar clip. Despite the fact she hasn’t a shred of likability, audiences are likely to be mesmerized by her (when the film ended, the woman sitting next to me said “That was brilliant!”). I was certainly impressed.
However, to the “didn’t” part: reviews calling this Woody’s greatest film since the pre-Husbands and Wives era saw something considerably stronger than I did. I was held by the film while I was watching it, but I found the script on the thin side, especially in retrospect. The narrative cribs heavily from Streetcar – not simply the “declining High Society lady comes to live with sister whose mate is a brute” premise, but even the rough rhythms of the story (though Stanley – actually two Stanleys, Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale – occupies a smaller segment of the film’s universe, and the Mitch comes from a different arena). Yet, despite the story-telling kinship, the film feels far more limited than Streetcar; it doesn’t have the same sense of movement or progression. When you get to the final scene of Williams’ play, you feel you’ve been part of a journey to tragedy; here, when you reach the end, it feels like a much smaller distance has been covered, and you’re not sure where it’s taken you. All this makes the film feel closer to a character sketch than a full-bodied work. (Though I will say there’s a plot surprise near the end that’s quite creative, which did more to make the film stick with me than anything else, as it made me re-evaluate a lot of the elements of Jasmine’s persona)
Lest this sound entirely negative, I’m not saying all this makes Blue Jasmine a bad film. It’s a solid three/three-and-a-half star movie. I’d just been led by some reviews to hope for the elusive four-star effort, and I don’t think this is it. Oh, and, on top of everything else: those who are calling this a comedy-drama are engaging in false advertising. There are maybe a few laughs, but this isn’t Manhattan, or even Crimes and Misdemeanors. It’s a drama, no question.
After others have seen the film (which is to say, when spoilers have been discounted), I’d like to raise the question, is this film Woody finally, 20 years on, coming to grips with the Soon-yi scandal?
The acting, by the way, is overall quite solid. Blanchett is of course a lock for a best actress nomination, and I’d rate Sally Hawkins just as likely to score under supporting actress; it’s another strong role, well-embodied. The men’s roles are smaller, but Cannavale and (more surprisingly) Andrew Dice Clay do very nice jobs, creating lower-class guys who irk Jasmine but aren’t caricatures (are, in fact, generally sympathetic, especially Dice Clay). Louis CK’s part is even smaller, but he’s quite good, as well.