Given that Woody Allen works in a closed creative ecosystem (no musical or theatrical influences after 1960, no cinematic ones after 1970), it’s amazing how skilled he is in making his old ideas seem fresh, lively, even urgent. His new drama Blue Jasmine comes this close to being a wheeze. But he sells it beautifully.
Allen has borrowed his setup (and theatrical attack) from A Streetcar Named Desire, which he brings into the present by making Blanche DuBois a younger Mrs. Bernie Madoff. Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine (née Jeanette), once impossibly wealthy and ensconced in New York society, now broke and homeless—and forced to move in with her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in a cramped San Francisco apartment. When she’s not insulting Ginger’s dopey-prole boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), Jasmine swallows anti-depressants and goes in and out of fugue states, babbling to anyone and no one while we’re whisked back in time to scenes of her life with her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), in Manhattan and the Hamptons.
That Blanchett played Blanche onstage (under the direction of Liv Ullmann) less than five years ago is a mixed blessing. She knows this song too well—she must have had to labor to keep the southern cadences out of her speech. In her first scene, in which she holds forth in a plane (all the way to the luggage carousel) to an unfortunate fellow passenger, Blanchett seems too theatrical, too fluent. Wouldn’t it be better to have a less external actress—a Judy Davis type, with a filament of real hysteria?
Maybe. But Blanchett does end up carrying scenes that would trip up a less polished performer. She’s wonderfully funny in her next, in which she punches in a cell-phone number while chattering away to a poor, accommodating cabbie and then turns and says without missing a beat, “Can I have some privacy, please?” Her alarmingly statuesque posture, the uptilt of her head, the precision with which she holds her designer purse: This is Blanchett playing a woman playing an urban sophisticate. The powerful perfection of Blanchett’s mask makes you believe it could have truly subsumed whatever person was once beneath. Did Jasmine know her husband was defrauding investors? She didn’t want to—not with shopping and yoga and Pilates and all those charity events. She looks like a golden statuette. She was never meant to live in the real world.
If you know the work of Allen (or Streetcar), you can predict every pipe-dream-shattering confrontation—every turn, twist, and resolution. But Baldwin and Michael Stuhlbarg as a shnooky dentist do much with their little, and you can never, ever predict Hawkins. She’s so much Blanchett’s opposite—raw, goosey, spontaneous—it’s no wonder Allen had to make them adopted sisters. She’s paired with three different actors: Andrew Dice Clay, surprisingly affecting as her first husband; Cannavale, who’s always entertaining but doesn’t rise above his sub-Kowalski part; and Louis C.K., who proves himself a sensitive actor even with lines that stop just at the point when in an episode of Louie they’d leap to the next level of poetic, cringeworthy self-revelation.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), the protagonist of The Spectacular Now, is a zany, fast-talking 18-year-old who riffs on the importance of living in the present—the now. He thinks his ready heart caused the breakup with his beautiful, blonde girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), who found him drinking in his parked car with another girl. Cassidy didn’t understand that he was keeping the girl company while her friend was in a canoe with his buddy—that he was helping the guy get laid! Sutter is so bummed about Cassidy he gets extra-loaded and wakes up at dawn on someone’s lawn, staring up at a girl from his school named Aimee (Shailene Woodley). He has never met her. She’s a studious, forward-looking person who doesn’t party. But she’s very pretty in her unassuming way and obviously into him, so it isn’t long before he’s passing her his flask and kissing her and asking her to the prom. At first you think he’s only using her to make Cassidy jealous. But then, gradually, it seems as if he does like her, at least enough to pull her into his spectacular now—which is, too often, a drunken haze.
Director James Ponsoldt has clearly worked hard to keep the Don’t drink, kids! message from swamping the romance and vice versa. His light touch helps—he puts less emphasis on booze than he did in his last drinking picture, Smashed. Early on, you notice Sutter gulping from a bottle of soda laced with whiskey, but it never dominates the frame. For a while, Sutter’s drinking can even be chalked up to his likable anti-authority shtick. He’s doing his gonzo thing.
Ponsoldt has cast his lead actor shrewdly. Teller didn’t get the attention he deserved as the teen who ran over the heroine’s little son in Rabbit Hole—a minefield of a role he made his own just by saying the lines as if he were thinking them up on the spot. He doesn’t have a trained actor’s diction (he hasn’t purged his Eastern Pennsylvania nasality), and it’s that touch of amateurishness that makes his Sutter more believable. The last thing you want is a song-and-dance kid who looks as if he were cast straight from theater camp, where they’re still talking about his Harold Hill. Ponsoldt lets his scenes with Woodley run long and find their own gentle rhythm.
Woodley played George Clooney’s eldest daughter in The Descendants, but I didn’t recognize her here. Her Aimee is so modest and attentive (and lovely and forgiving) that she seems too good to be true. But Aimee’s longing for someone to protect her—and free her from a domineering mother—is in Woodley’s hands too true to be good. She’s frighteningly vulnerable. It’s unfortunate that Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have omitted one crucial episode from Tim Tharp’s fine novel, in which Aimee gets bombed and smacks Cassidy. You need that scene to see that Sutter’s alcoholism is a contagion—that it’s not just threatening his future but Aimee’s, too. My guess is the filmmakers feared that scene would shove The Spectacular Now too violently out of the teen-romance genre, which is less flexible than it should be. You can bring kids down but not that down.
Otherwise, it’s all good. You’ll have to wait until August to see Brie Larson’s breakout performance in the phenomenally moving Short Term 12. Meanwhile, you can admire the shading and intelligence she brings to Cassidy. Kyle Chandler gives an extraordinary performance as Sutter’s long-absent dad, with his macho braggadocio and furtive, tragic eyes. Most teen movies are cocktails of melancholy and elation. This one is best at its most un-transcendent—when it most evokes that period when we never knew what we were supposed to do with the pain.
Hot-dog Hong Kong action stylist Johnnie To has never achieved the cult status of John Woo in this country, but his explosively entertaining—and startlingly splattery—Drug War should win him new fans. The saga of a drug manufacturer who cooperates with cops to avoid the death penalty, it’s a crisscross-y, lickety-split, fairly superficial affair with echoes of Infernal Affairs (remade as The Departed) and Mission: Impossible. But To creates his own inimitable spatial-temporal reality. Gravity lightens. Colors pulse. He sings the dead body electric.
Directed by Woody Allen.
Sony Pictures Classics. PG-13.
The Spectacular Now
Directed by James Ponsoldt.
Directed by Johnnie To.
Variance Films. NR.