Survival is the game’s name for many of 2014’s Oscar nominees, from Sandra Bullock surviving space in Gravity to Leonardo DiCaprio surviving epic drug binges in The Wolf Of Wall Street. To those you can add the resilience of Woody Allen, who endured career waves deadlier than any in All Is Lost to deliver something more satisfying than that long-mooted ‘return to form’.
In its skewering of self-delusion, timely themes, near-perfect ensemble and note-perfect star, Allen’s 44th feature serves proof that renewed vitality is better than any return to “the early, funny ones”. Or, heaven forbid, any return to his later, uneven ones.
Whatever you made of Diane Keaton’s sing-song Allen tribute at the recent Golden Globes, Cate Blanchett certainly propels broken socialite Jasmine to the top ranks of Allen’s “unforgettable female characters”. Forced to live in San Francisco after moneyed hubby Hal (Alec Baldwin) is exposed as a big-time crook, she’s a Xanax-popping bag of jittery denial and snobbery, struggling to hold the lies of her identity together.
Blanchett’s ability to make us understand Jasmine without mugging for empathy is just one of her many triumphs. When you realise that the film’s slippery flashbacks and artificial sheen are pegged to Jasmine’s splintering psyche, Blanchett’s performance impresses even more.
The spotlight’s on Blanchett, but she’s not the only one who shines. Sally Hawkins revisits her Happy-Go-Lucky persona as Jasmine’s adopted, blue-collar sis Ginger, while Baldwin is effortless in a role that slyly riffs on big-time fraudster Bernie Madoff.
Car mechanic Chili is Allen’s main slip: if Bobby Cannavale struggles with the role, blame Allen’s delusion that he can write working-class characters. But he’s redeemed somewhat by Andrew Dice Clay, whose Augie brims with broken dignity as a poignant casualty of Hal’s dealings.
More expected vintage Allen echoes include his expressive way with domestic sets, stoking memories of 1978’s Interiors: Ginger’s apartment is its own character. But you won’t find echoes of recent Allen fumbles such as Cassandra’s Dream and To Rome With Love. Where those films lacked focus and balance, Blue Jasmine is an acute juggling act of tragedy and farce, character study and allegory.
And this time, you don’t need an excuse to reach for a ‘return to form’ banner: more substantial than a charming trifle like 2011’s Midnight In Paris, this is the work of an older Allen, perhaps cruel but also wise. Almost as cruel, this is a rare Allen DVD with extras… none of which (press conference, actor soundbites) feature the man himself.
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