Saturday, August 10, 2013

Blue Jasmine (2013)

My chief observations about the title character can also be applied to the movie: she's neither right nor wrong, not good or bad, at least not as bad as she could be.

The movie starts with Jasmine talking to her seatmate on a flight, about leaving college and abandoning hopes of a career in anthropology to marry Hal, a promising dreamboat. Blue Moon was playing when she and Hal met, and it's always been their song. As she prattles on, while disembarking and on through baggage claim, while her companion is unable to get a word in edgewise, it becomes clear that she doesn't even know the lady to whom she's talking, but Woody feels the need to hit us over the head with that point by not only having the woman walk away from Jasmine, but express what a pain she was to someone arriving at the airport to pick her up. A moment of subtle humor becomes a bludgeon, when taken too far.

A chic Jasmine directs a cabbie to an address she recites from a handwritten note, while bending his ear. When she arrives at the place, she has to call her sister to confirm that she's at the right hovel. She finds a spare key and over tips the driver for hauling her many Louis Vuitton bags up the stairs. Consequently, we are just as surprised as her sister, Ginger, to learn that Jasmine is broke. How did she manage to fly there first class if she has no money, Ginger asks. Jasmine doesn't know. She just did. And the Louis Vuitton? Don't judge her. She sold many of her expensive possessions and only got pennies on the dollar for them.

Sally Hawkins imbues Ginger with the type of working girl charm Marisa Tomei might bring to the role. Ginger seems genuinely good-hearted. Not slow-witted, but slow to act, easily influenced or silenced, low in self-esteem. She tells her two, chubby and blank-eyed sons that she and Jasmine were both adopted. Jasmine loved their parents, but Ginger didn't get along with them and left home early. Jasmine got the "good genes" was the common family opinion. Jasmine used to be Jeannine, but changed it.

There are frequent flashbacks from Jasmine's past life in the Hamptons with Hal, but for her they aren't flashbacks. She often slips into memory. Her current surroundings fade away and she's back in her mansion or at the stables, mingling with the social elite, saying what she said then. When shaken back to the present, she finds that she's been talking to herself. She's aware of her tenuous grip and tells Ginger that she can't be alone right now, as she swallows anti-anxiety pills.

Ginger's boyfriend was about to move in with her, but has been displaced by Jasmine's visit. This puts him at odds with the newcomer from the start. Of course, it would be easy to say that Jasmine turned her nose down at Ginger's blue collar love, but he's so obnoxious that anyone would. It's true that she's self-absorbed and that's probably more the cause of her current mental instability than a byproduct of it. However, she condescends in places that almost anyone would. Chili wants her out of Ginger's abode as soon as possible, so that he can move in, so from the moment he meets Ginger, he's pressuring her about finding a job. He knows a dentist who needs an assistant -- Jasmine isn't interested. Well, what would she like to do? Well, she once studied anthropology ... she thinks she'd like to return to school... As he looks at the cultured, but unskilled middle-aged woman who currently lives on her sister's couch, while still dreaming of becoming an archaeologist (anthropologist, same difference), Chili's skepticism is natural, but so is her disdain. In fact, Jasmine's reaction to him reminds me of another flower nom de plumed woman: Hyacinth Bucket and her travails with brother-in-law Onslow!

Chili takes Jasmine on a double date with Ginger and a pal of his, who's half Jasmine's size and 1/4 of her intellect. She escapes them into a bottle of vodka. Chili resents her attitude but, at this early stage in their history, his reaction is more based on what he's heard about Jasmine, more than on anything she's done. Ginger told him that Jasmine wanted nothing to do with her, when she was living the high life and only remembers that she exists now, when she needs help.

This opinion of Ginger's is justified. We flash back to Ginger and her ex, Augie, visiting Jasmine and Hal in her Manhattan apartment. Jasmine hopes to wash her hands of the tourists by setting them up in a Marriot and sending them sight-seeing. The fact that they're there during the week of her birthday is most inconvenient, since it forces her to invite them to her birthday party. Jasmine's ennui towards Ginger only lessens when she learns that Augie has recently won the lottery. He has a quarter-million to invest and suddenly Jasmine has all sorts of plans for them. She will get Hal to let them in on his latest hedge fund venture. He'll do them the favor of using their money to make more of it. They've never invested before and this is all they have, so Augie is hesitant, but looking around Jasmine's expensive home, Ginger needs know convincing. Hal obviously knows what he's doing. So, they give him their windfall and they lose it all when Hal is exposed as a Bernie Madoff-styled crook, who defrauded his investors and ended up in jail, when his Ponzi scheme was finally uncovered. We only get snatches of his unraveling at a time, interspersed with Jasmine's current life, but when we put all the pieces together, we learn that Hal hung himself in jail. Since it's only spoken of casually and in retrospect, it's impossible to know what Jasmine felt at the time, what grief -- or guilt -- the memory causes her.

She says that she never knew what Hal was doing financially, that she was his victim like everyone else. It's easy to believe her, because she's too self-preoccupied to scrutinize much. After all, she knew nothing about his affairs for many years.

During the same visit to Manhattan when Ginger and Augie gave Hal their money and sealed their low-class fates, Ginger caught Hal with another woman, while browsing the streets of NY. She agonizes about whether to tell Jasmine or remain silent. She mentions just enough of her suspicions to plant a seed of distrust in Jasmine. She'd always considered her husband too busy for infidelities, but hey, he's played by Alec Baldwin, we know what he's capable of! As she watches him with his physical trainer, his lawyer (described as a Chinese dragon woman, a line that's less comical than curious coming from Woody Allen) and their female friends, she begins to see an amorous undercurrent in these relations that she'd been blind to before.

Jasmine is not exactly painted as the typical grand dame. She loves the diamond baubles Hal gives her, but she loves him too. She even loves his son, in her way. When we first see her with him, we assume that she's the Baroness and he's a bothersome Von Trapp boy, but when she encourages Hal to spend more time with him, she actually means it. She's not naturally jealous or competitive. She's careless, but not unkind. Even with Ginger, she's disinterested, rather than heartless. In the end though, perhaps the two flaws have the same effect and only the most charitable try to distinguish between them.

When she had Ginger invest with Hal, we know that Jasmine probably didn't intend to actually hurt her. She assumed that her sister and Augie would make money, but her primary motivation was that Hal make even more of it. Her goal wasn't to help them, that would just be a happy fallout. She serves her own needs first, without particularly meaning to hurt others, but mindless of the possibility that she might. It's like the legal definition of gross negligence: There need be no willful misconduct. Simple reckless disregard for the consequences to the safety or property or another will suffice.

Pulling herself back into the present, Jasmine abandons her dreams of anthropology but thinks she might make a good interior decorator. She certainly worked with enough of them when decorating hers and Hal's many homes. Ginger, silently wondering how long she will be playing landlady to Jasmine, points out that becoming a designer takes time. No, Jasmine knows someone who got an online degree in designing. She could too -- if she knew anything about computers or the internet. She ends up taking the position of receptionist at that dentist's office Chili told her about, after all. Just so she can get enough money to learn computers and, then, take online design courses. Of course, it's absurd to think that anyone needs to take formal computer classes for online study. Thirty minutes in a chair is sufficient for maneuvering to a website and following the navigation buttons to the course you want. The idea that Jasmine is taking computer classes seems outdated by 15 years. I don't know if it's in the script for humor or a sign of Woody's own detachment from the real world. You don't need to know script any longer. Punch cards and floppies are obsolete. Allen has assistants to browse the internet for him, maybe he doesn't realize that no formal instruction is required any longer. Ginger's friends have no money, no lap top, no wifi, I'm sure. But her sons must access computers at school and she and Jasmine both have cell phones. You could take an online course on your iphone and print out the design degree. It's a poor plot device. It would have made more sense for Jasmine to work to pay for the design class itself, rather than to learn the basic skills needed to virtually attend one.

At the dental office, she tries to learn the office routine and does a half-way decent job, when she's not losing her temper with patients who are truly annoying, it's not just her. The irony is, even scheduling appointments in a computer database or learning to operate a multi-line phone takes more know-how than sitting for online classes does. Jasmine is not the best receptionist, but her boss is impressed with her grace, drawn to the way she wears her clothes (even just the jeans) and carries herself. She recycles the same clothes and handbag, they're old, but tasteful, having originally cost thousands. The classics endure forever, don't they?

When the dentist asks Jasmine out, she obliges to keep her job, but tells him she has a boyfriend, so that he'll keep his distance. It doesn't work and she quits when he starts mawling her. She fights back not only valiantly, but effectively, knocking him back in a scene that's both amusing and uncomfortable. She wasn't doing anything wrong, didn't deserve what happened and, I almost felt, should be applauded for managing to get along in the real world for a change. The sexual harassment she suffered is nothing compared to the harsher abuses people face daily, many with obligations far greater than Jasmine's who aren't lucky enough to land a receptionist position with little effort. It just shows that the world needn't be its cruelest to beat you down. Life's mere randomness can levy defeat. Looking at Jasmine I was reminded of Sister Carrie or Wharton's Lily Bart, whose downfalls were more poignant because it seemed that salvation was in their grasp, they were climbing up, but then reached for a rung too high, instead of grabbing the one surest and nearest. If they'd more quickly accepted slight disgrace they could have prevented utter ruin. Jasmine seemed to be avoiding this mistake when she forsake lofty expectations (or resigned herself to having to work up to them) and took the job in the dentist's office, but fate scoffed at her good intentions.

She explains what happened to a friend at the computer class who suggests she sue the dentist (my suggestion too), but Jasmine wants to move on. The friend, who's dating a lawyer, invites Jasmine to a party. She pesters Ginger into going with her. They both meet knights on white horses. Ginger's is an audio/video installer who thinks she's sexy. Jasmine's is a would-be politician who, like the dentist, is impressed with Jasmine's elan. He, Dwight, can see her as his own Jackie O. He just bought a house and Jasmine offers to give him decorating ideas. She tells him she's an interior designer and a widow. Her husband was a surgeon. Since Hal's fraud conviction and suicide doubtless made national news, one wonders how Jasmine can hope to get away with this lie? Is it her mental lapses that make her think she won't get caught or just poor plotting by Allen?

Ginger so loves being wooed by her audio tech that she starts giving Chili the cold shoulder. Even though they use cheap hotels or plain old vans for their rendezvous, Ginger feels it's a step up from what she's been used to. Jasmine is right. She's been selling herself short and settling for the wrong men. When Chili learns she's been dating someone else he becomes enraged, yanks her phone off the wall and paws at her, while Jasmine demands that he leave. His reaction is proof of the brute she's always seen him as being. Yet, with the lives Hal has ruined, the fortunes and livelihoods he stole, the fact that he was no better than Chili is a fact lost on Jasmine, but not the audience. Chili follows Ginger to the grocery store where she works as a cashier and causes a scene, actually crying when he ditches her.

Meanwhile, Dwight is charmed by the pieces Jasmine picks out for his home. She always knows what to say, what to do, which wine to choose. He asks her to marry him. One could almost read Jasmine's shock as rejection. Dwight doesn't see the fact that she needs to take anxiety pills after his proposal as a good sign, but she just gasps that her outburst is just because she wanted so much for him to love her and now he does. It's a surprising bit of candor. I'd have expected her to play it calm, cool, but her relief is too real for that. I realize that even when she was first charming Dwight, it wasn't a game. She wasn't trying to lure him in. Whether aloof or engaging, she was natural. Her sense of detachment was both mental and social, or social because it was mental. As desperately as she needed to snag a rich man, when she met Dwight, she was somewhere else in her head, at a party long past, hosting with Hal at another house, another time, and genuinely unaware of the gentleman whose eye she'd captured in the present. Her engagement to Dwight might pull her off of the unemployment line, but it wouldn't necessarily pull her back to sanity. This is clear when she takes her nephews to lunch, tells them she'll be getting married soon, but then briefly lapses into dementia that leaves their mouths ajar.

Ginger is stood up for a date with her audio tech guy. When she calls his job he tells her he can't see her anymore. His wife found out, so it has to end. Oh, didn't he mention that he was married? No, Ginger says. He didn't.

Jasmine recalls her last meeting with her stepson. He was leaving college, abandoning the ivy league school where everyone knew who his father was and what he had done. Jasmine begs him not to give up. Hal may have been a fraud, but there's no reason for his son to waste his education and future. The son won't listen to her. He says he knows what she's done.

Dwight takes Jasmine to meet his parents. They are duly charmed and he and Jasmine are window shopping for an engagement ring when Augie comes upon her. Long time no see, Jasmine -- or Jeannine. He'd heard that Jasmine was back in town, living with Ginger, although she'd had no use for her sister in the past and was responsible for everything they'd lost. Augie recalls how Hal killed himself and says he's seen Jasmine's son too. He now works at a shop in the city and Augie knows how the kid has turned his back on Jasmine too. It would have made more sense for Dwight to learn about Jasmine's past online. He didn't need an enemy from her past to walk up and lay it all out so dramatically, but it all turns out the same. Dwight turns on her for lying to him. How did she think she would keep it all a secret? Or maybe she only hoped it would stay a secret long enough for them to marry. Then, it would be too late. Clearly, Dwight's outrage is justified, but if he'd loved her enough . . .is he just fascinated by her image, by the ideal of how his political career might be furthered with her on his arm? Jasmine was deceitful to be sure, in addition to lying about her ex and her career, she also had Dwight meet her at hotels, so he wouldn't see how shabbily she lived with Ginger. However, if she'd been a consummate con artist, she could have won Dwight back over, turned on the charm, stroked his ego, cried to bring down his guard and spur his protective urges. But she doesn't know enough to do any of them. She shrieks and demands to be let out of the car. How will she get home, Dwight asks exasperated. Just let her out. He does and she stalks back to Ginger's, where Chili is back in residence.

The past is rushing back to Jasmine now. She remembers how a friend confirmed to her that Hal was unfaithful. Yes, he'd had affairs, many of them. Jasmine returned home to confront him, rather than apologizing Hal says that he's now in a relationship that's more than just lust. He wants a divorce. He intends to marry his latest lover. Jasmine becomes hysterical, flailing and screaming. Hal tells her she's having a "temper tantrum" and tries to restrain her, but a tantrum implies she's having an angry outburst to manipulate him. Her response is less rational than that. He tells her she'll be well-provided for and then leaves. She desperately fumbles for the telephone and asks for the number of the ... FBI. So, she's the one who turned him in, caused him to lose everything they'd had, go to jail and commit suicide. There's an audible gasp in the audience when this is revealed, but I suspected as much earlier, when the son partially blamed her the scandal. Jasmine may have cut off her nose to spite her face when turning her husband in. She'd vaguely suspected that her husband was bilking people all along and was happy to live off the proceeds, until she wanted revenge. She ratted him out to hurt him, rather than protect anyone else. Yet, if I understand nothing else Jasmine did, I can identify with that telephone call. There was something about Hal's unruffled confrontation that provoked her into wanting to get him in the only place where it would hurt. If he'd lied, if he'd cried and simply feigned remorse, things would have gone differently. But as selfish as Jasmine was, he was even more so, not even putting on a show of regret or compassion. Maybe she could have survived the cheating and divorce. It's the unconcern that did her in.

He's arrested. She has a nervous break down, undergoes shock therapy.

After leaving Dwight's car, Jasmine goes to the shop where Augie says her stepson worked. He's not happy to see her. He says that no matter how much he hated his father, he still blames her for turning him in. He wishes Augie hadn't given her his location. He never wants to see her again.

Chili and Ginger have made up and Ginger has gained resolve. She must blame Jasmine for having put higher hopes in her head, because now she's firmly on Chili's side and demands that Jasmine stop putting him down. Chili is moving in. Ginger must feel that she thought the grass was greener on the other side, but as little as he had to offer, Chili really loved her. What does he get in return? Was she even moved by her tears at the supermarker, or only repulsed? Maybe she was wrong to think she deserved more than he offered. It's hard to know whether to feel sorry for Ginger or not. She was hurt, but she hurt Chili. Jasmine uses her, but she responds passive aggressively, voicing her resentment to Augie and Chili in a way that's only human, but makes her seem like less of the loyal sister, deserving of only sympathy. As with Dwight and Jasmine, it's hard to know how deep Ginger's feelings for anyone really go. Did she help Jasmine out of love or pity or because she was too timid to do anything else? She doesn't seem to get satisfaction from Jasmine's downfall, but was she truly saddened by it? Ginger informs Jasmine that Chili is moving in. Maybe they'll get married. Jasmine angrily denounces the couple's reunion, but Chili has a new sense of confidence now and does not feel threatened. He laughs Jasmine's opinion off, rather than challenging it. Fine she says, Dwight has asked her to move in with him ahead of their engagement anyway.

She takes a swig of vodka, jumps into the shower, jumps out, still drenched. Clothes wet, mascara running, creating a lurid sight that should have at least caused Ginger to ask what was wrong, Jasmine announces that she's leaving and will send for her things later. She walks out and into the street, sitting on a park bench and stirring others to leave when she begins mumbling aloud to herself. Blue Moon was playing the night she met Hal. She used to know the words. What were they? Blue moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own.

So now will she lose her weak hold and sink completely into madness or, rather, does it seep fully into the porous fissures were never whole or sealed to begin with?

That's the question, if her finances were back on track, would she have healed or would that just have delayed the inevitable melt down? Did Hal's betrayal cause her to lose it or had the symptoms been there all along? How many of us seem normal, but would break under stress. How many carry a vulnerability that leads to the stress that will make us break? When Jasmine got the "good genes" did they include the one that would spark her own destruction? Crazed or crazy?

I don't know if the film means to take a side on the question, because I don't see Jasmine as having written her own fate. I can't say, she acted irrationally when she called the FBI. A reasonable person might have done the same in the face of Hal's patronizing calm. She may have been a time bomb ticking, but I see her more as one ignited. She walked through life casually dooming Ginger, Augie and bored airplane passengers, but couldn't get out of the way of the Hals and dentists waiting to trip her up.

Had she been a better person, or a worse one, her outcome would have improved, either way.

I've seen more Woody Allen films in the last decade, than I did in his heyday. It's not because I appreciate him more, but critical reaction to his work has finally deflated to normal proportions, so I feel less of a need to reject what I found so over-rated in the seventies and eighties. His movies signify more now, when there's less sound and fury about their merit. I found Crimes and Misdemeanors and Midnight in Paris much more delightful than Annie Hall. Without crime, fantasy or broad comedy, to enhance the plot, Jasmine does fall flat. It's not original, wacky or particularly realistic. Other than Cate Blanchett's performance, which was as entrancing when Jasmine was elegant, as in those moments when she came unglued, and seamlessly transitioned between the two, there's nothing much to recommend. Yet, there remains enough to analyze to make it worth a view.

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