Go west, middle-aged former socialite

Apart from birthdays and minor holidays, the many typically expect a gift, equal-parts generous and mysterious, on two occasions of each year: Christmas, and the release of a new Woody Allen movie. Although recent years have been underwhelming in terms of the latter, the thought, care, and memory of great gifts from a bygone era is charming enough to earn a simple “thank you” anyways. Not this year — no, this year, Christmas comes early.

The American auteur’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, is wrapped in his signature Windsor typeface and white-on-black-on-jazz credits. The film begins with brief and noticeably bad Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) but leaves you with plenty of noticeably great performances — how refreshing, for a summer movie.

No longer rolling in the green, protagonist Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), is feeling a little blue these days. Gone is her lavish and affluent life on Park Avenue — a distant memory accessible now only through a thousand-yard stare, fit for Norma Desmond herself.

Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is a white-collar crook, cheating his wife’s heart and his investors’ wallets. After years of signing documents she had never read, out of either ignorance or willful blindness, Jasmine, despite all of her wealth, can no longer afford to look the other way. Illusions shattered, assets seized, and pockets broke, she suffers a nervous breakdown.

Practiced in the art of re-invention and well versed in self-deception, Jasmine’s transition from cultural elite to damaged goods charts geographical and emotional depths. With nothing to her name, except, well, her name, Jasmine flies to San Francisco and moves in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

Like Scarlett O’Hara before her, Jasmine vows never to go hungry again — but her road to independence is marred by a twisted scheme involving computer classes at night to equip herself for an online course in interior decorating. By day, she’s a dental receptionist, which soon becomes as torturous to her as having her teeth pulled. Poor Jasmine, desperately trying to hold on to what little dignity she has left, also has to contend with her infatuated boss Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg).

As you would expect from a film about someone who has dropped a few rungs on the social ladder, we find Jasmine mingling among unsavory and carefree individuals like Chili, Ginger’s controlling boyfriend played with equal levels of humour and explosiveness by Bobby Cannavale. Ginger’s past and present men are the wealthiest source of chuckles on screen, whether it’s Andrew Dice Clay’s natural Brooklyn swagger in the role of ex-husband Augie, or Louis C.K.’s sleazy and sex-obsessed Al. Like the director, both Louis and Dice are comics first and foremost, but they do just fine in front of a movie camera.

Critics be damned, I will throw my hat into the ring of reverence for Allen’s unique ability to write women’s parts better than most other directors, and Blue Jasmine is no exception.

Many critics have been quick to promise Cate Blanchett an Oscar nomination. This much is true: the meaty nuance and expression that Blanchett showcases, especially under the very limited and monosyllabic direction that Allen is reputed for on set, is nothing short of astounding.

At 77, Woody Allen is no longer a young spry, even if his impressive, per annum rate of film production says otherwise. I confess, though it is morbid to even raise the subject, that I am as terrified of the prospect of Woody Allen’s death as he is. No matter how each of his films sits with me, and despite the fact that his best work may be behind him, I am reminded that Blue Jasmine is the work of a seasoned cinematic master. I secretly hope that every year will bring a Woody Allen film I enjoy as much as Zelig or Annie Hall; no matter what  previous years have brought, I will keep hoping. Mustn’t we all have our illusions?

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