By Steve Greene | Criticwire July 18, 2013 at 2:10PM
Ah, "awards season." Those two lovely words that can either strike fear or awe into the hearts of readers. (Sometimes simultaneously.) Amidst the treacherous waters of summer film fare, there are usually a few standouts that even make writers take notice as something worth remembering through the end of the year and beyond.
One such example seemed to pop up in more than a few places yesterday, as the first reviews of "Blue Jasmine," the latest film from writer/director Woody Allen made their way online. Unlike his previous surprise smash hit "Midnight in Paris," early write-ups are looking more toward the performances that drive the film forward, rather than a playful atmosphere. Chief among them? Cate Blanchett, whose profile is featured prominently in the film's poster.
Validating Sony Pictures Classics' marketing instincts, Blanchett is the standout central figure in a tale that should seem right at place alongside Allen's most respected work. It seems the Woodman is back to what he's done best: showing people in rare moments of happiness and contentment, right before sending them hurtling back to reality.
Screen Daily's Brent Simon highlights that push-pull dynamic as one of the film's strong suits:
"The more conventional and feel-good take on this material would be one of sisterly reconnection and discovery via these various, intertwined stories of romantic bloom and withering, but Allen elides laborious whimsy and instead focuses on notions of reinvention (success is questionable) and romantic settling, via an engaging split structure that alternates between Jasmine’s lavish past and brought-low present. The basic discord Allen sketches is familiar (selfishness, disapproval over a family member’s significant other), but 'Blue Jasmine'’s smiles and laughs flow mostly from a sense of pained social recognition rather than any patter."
"These aspects ultimately seem careless in a film that in many ways is impressively dark and nuanced. In his later films, Allen struggles with supporting roles. A lead character -- such as Blanchett here -- is fleshed out, three-dimensional and often winningly rich with the signature neuroses and insecurities that Allen has made a lifelong obsession. Yet smaller characters are tossed off and inconsistent -- both the talented Michael Stuhlbarg and Louis C.K. are given fairly thankless roles in the film -- while observations about cultural environments have a tourist-like superficiality."
"The script takes a similarly complex view of its secondary characters, and what gives 'Blue Jasmine' its particular integrity is its acknowledgment that, despite their obvious differences in sophistication, taste and socioeconomic background, every one of these folks may have a point. Allen’s sense of class stratification here isn’t exactly nuanced, but his sympathies are more evenly distributed than usual, and he happily reveals more than one side to every personality, a strategy that helps bring out the best in a very fine cast."
"The writer-director steps up to the challenge with an ambitious attempt to capture two very different American cultures in a single movie: the hilly, homey, laid-back textures of San Francisco, and the dollar-sign-driven New York City Allen has depicted so many times before. In fact, 'Blue Jasmine' probably marks one of the least-romantic visions of New York we’ll ever get from Allen: there are no real signature, picturesque shots from cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, and the film’s relevant inquiry into pressing economic issues (reflected, above all, in the modestly tragic arc of the Andrew Dice Clay character, whom the actor plays beautifully) turns the city into a cold vacuum."
But the real star seems to be Blanchett. Leah Rozen at The Wrap wonders if Blanchett's performance here wasn't informed by her recent run on Broadway as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee William's "A Streetcar Named Desire":
"Blanchett isn’t really doing Blanche here, or at least not Blanche as the classic, faded Southern belle. Rather, she’s playing what Blanche might be if she lived today and was part of the Upper East Side-Hamptons set but had started out poor, ended up rich and then lost it all again. It’s a tour de force performance, and one that doesn’t necessarily beg the audience to like her."
"In many ways, 'Blue Jasmine' just can’t hope to compete with Blanchett, who feels like she is more deeply committed than the rest of the movie that veers from broad-ish, slight comedy to bleak, depressing drama and back again. It’s part raw and ugly character study, part ensemble comedy, but it’s that first element that is so striking, bold and unnerving, while the latter element is sometimes amusing, but familiar."