Woody Allen's new drama Blue Jasmine is modeled, both loosely and very specifically, on Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, and if you're familiar with that stage classic - or, really, with Williams' oeuvre in general - you can correctly presume that the movie will not end on a note of cheer. Yet for the life of me, I couldn't convince my face of that, because Cate Blanchett's almost impossibly fine performance in the writer/director's latest left me smiling so contentedly you would've thought the screening came with an open bar and complimentary full-body massage. Catching up with me on the way out of the auditorium, a friend, regarding Blanchett's portrayal, said, "I think I'm gonna be high for a week." I'm pretty sure I vocalized my agreement but was feeling too high to be certain.
The actress' magnificence as Allen's Blanche DuBois stand-in, the fallen Manhattan socialite Jasmine French, probably shouldn't come as a surprise, partly because Blanchett is so frequently marvelous, and partly because her interpretation of Blanche in director Liv Ullman's 2009 touring production of Streetcar has been widely acknowledged as legendary. (Writing in The New Yorker, John Lahr stated, "I don't expect to see a better performance of this role in my lifetime.") But it is a surprise, a shock even, whenever you find yourself confronted with a performance this jaw-droppingly excellent - this ravaged and tragic and extraordinarily moving - and I don't think it's out-of-line to suggest that Cate Blanchett's turn in Blue Jasmine is on a par with the absolute best screen work of the millennium. For my money, it's right up there with Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview and Marion Cotillard's Edith Piaf, and it would constitute a bit of a crime against cinema if Blanchett, in six months' time, didn't find herself similarly Oscar-lauded for her efforts.
Yet even if she isn't, this portrayal will remain one for the ages, and among the 40-plus titles on Allen's filmography, Blue Jasmine may wind up being one for the ages, too. Simultaneously an homage to and a re-imagining of Tennessee Williams' greatest theatrical achievement, the movie opens with the anxious, chattering Jasmine - first seen flying cross-country to live with her sister in San Francisco - left destitute after the arrest of her millionaire husband (Alec Baldwin), a high-finance wizard whose illegal dealings led to the FBI's confiscation of the couple's wealth and assets. (Well, most of their wealth and assets, as Jasmine appears to have squeezed as many designer-label outfits into her suitcases as space could conceivably allow, and did manage to fly to California on a first-class ticket.) But from the moment she steps off the plane, it's clear that Jasmine - who initially seems like a prototypical, funny-and-flighty Woody Allen neurotic - is actually a woman at the very end of her emotional tether, every bit the genteel Blanche DuBois terrified by the sensual grime of New Orleans' French quarter. ("I don't want realism! I want magic!") Aghast at the middle-class living conditions of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and appalled by the macho bluster of Ginger's devoted boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), Jasmine handles her dislocation by swilling vodka and popping Xanax. She also routinely disappears into reveries (shown in flashback) of her life of luxury in New York - recollections of happier times made horrifying with the realization that Jasmine, talking to herself while staring vacantly into space, may no longer be able to see where memory ends and her new, real life begins.
In addition to the Blanche, Stella, and Stanley Kowalski figures, there's a Mitch on hand in the presence of Peter Sarsgaard's Dwight, a charming, handsome widower who initiates an inevitably ill-fated affair with Jasmine. And admittedly, several set pieces in the film - particularly the living-room confrontation that feels like a reprise of Streetcar's famed poker-night sequence - echo similar moments in Tennessee Williams' classic nearly beat for beat. Yet thanks to Allen's artistry, and the spectacular cleverness of his designing a Streetcar Named Desire for the post-economic-meltdown era, Blue Jasmine doesn't feel the least bit derivative. Filming the numerous Manhattan flashbacks with a lulling, tranquil smoothness and the San Francisco scenes with blunt immediacy, Allen demonstrates incredible visual acuity in his exploration of the cultural chasm between modern-day haves and have-nots; though sisters, Jasmine and Ginger don't even pretend to understand one another, and appear wholly uninterested in trying. (The sincere, earthy Hawkins expertly suggests a lifetime spent living in the shadow of a golden-haired family favorite.) His verbal acuity, too, is nothing to sniff at, and while much of the film's power lies in its rich and evocative dramatic language, there are more than enough witty exchanges to satisfy the auteur's admirers, and anyone else who can appreciate the delight of perfectly constructed character revelation through dialogue. (Many of Jasmine's flintiest, most telling lines are delivered as sardonic throwaways.)
I do wish that a couple of the movie's narrative detours were more satisfying. Michael Stuhlbarg, as the lecherous dentist for whom Jasmine (to her mortification) eventually works as a receptionist, is stuck in an unpleasant subplot and forced into telegraphing his character's odiousness, and wonderful though it is to see him, Louis C.K. - playing a romantic rival for Ginger's affections - appears in a storyline arc that could have been excised with no noticeable loss. But given stronger material in which to stretch, Baldwin, Cannavale, Sarsgaard, and Max Casella deliver committed, enormously enjoyable portrayals, and in what must count as one of the grander movie shocks of recent years, Andrew Dice Clay turns in a true beauty of a character turn. His unaffected, tough-minded, and deeply sympathetic efforts as Ginger's ex-husband - a man who lost $200,000 on a shady investment deal made by Jasmine's husband - put into vivid perspective the heartbreaking, impotent anger felt by too many 99-percenters in 2013 America.
And then, of course, there's Blanchett, who no doubt would've made the experience of Allen's latest unmissable even if everything else about it had gone completely to hell. Traversing an almost ridiculously complex emotional journey with abject fearlessness, the actress has moments here when Jasmine's hysteria - which, somehow, is both comedic and wrenching - hits epic proportions, and you're left in thrall to the performer's unbridled willingness to go such crazed yet controlled extremes. (At times, she's like the Judy Davis of Allen's Husbands & Wives in even more operatic states of high dudgeon, which I previously would have thought impossible.) Yet even at her quietest and most fragile, as in the movie's unforgettable final minutes, Blanchett's creation is hypnotic; you barely want to breathe for fear of breaking the delicate hold the actor appears to have on the role, and on you. We may never again get the chance to see Cate Blanchett's take on Blanche DuBois, but I feel we're all getting the next best thing in Blue Jasmine. It's a performance loaded with realism and magic.
THE WORLD'S END
I would love almost nothing more than to spend roughly the same amount of words on my review of director Edgar Wright's The World's End as I did on Blue Jasmine, because this comedy by the director, co-writers, and stars (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz - their new work completing Wright's cheekily titled "Cornetto Trilogy" - is 110 minutes of solid, hysterical bliss. However, some 40 minutes into this Brit-com about five high-school buddies who reunite for a legendary pub crawl 20 years after their last attempt, we're treated to a diabolical, hugely entertaining plot twist that no amount of SPOILER ALERT-ing would ever convince me to reveal, so I'll instead remain brief ... although not quite as brief as the five-word review I was tempted to write: "For God's sake, see it." Filled to brimming with Wright's and co-screenwriter Pegg's signature, fantastically motor-mouthed verbiage, and with unexpected bursts of legitimate poignancy lending emotional gravitas to the near-constant merriment, The World's End is a startlingly confident and subversive accomplishment, and one boasting some surprisingly first-rate visual effects. (I'm not saying anything, I'm not saying anything ... .) Played by such polished comic talents as Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan, and the eternal dream team of Pegg and Frost, its characters and their plights are universally engaging. And just when you think you've laughed about as hard at the film as you have in all of 2013's other comedies combined, and our heroic gents have made their way to the fourth of 12 taverns on their docket, along come the ro - ... . Nope. I'm shutting up now. Grab a Cornetto, if you can find one in the states, and enjoy.
More often than not, gore-filled splatter flicks feature characters whose fates you don't necessarily care about. But the horror outing You're Next was a special case for me, because I actually did care about the characters' fates ... although what I was hoping for was for every last one of them, heroes and villains alike, to perish as soon as possible. A tale that finds an affluent family's dinner party interrupted by crossbow-wielding assassins wearing plastic animal masks, director Adam Wingard's outing features impressively rendered blasts of viscera and a few effective jolts, and I have to commend it for the halfway-mark turnaround that completely shifts the tenor of the plot, even if, as a result, nothing gets massacred so much as the on-screen tension. (Once the identity of the killers is revealed, the nominal fun in this lowbrow take on Agatha Christie's 10 Little Indians pretty much grinds to a halt.) But rarely have I seen a fright film that boasted quite so many aggressively irritating potential victims; with the moderate exception of the fetching Sharni Vinson - whose character, as we learn, was very conveniently raised in a survivalist colony located in the Australian outback - all we're given here are bum actors reciting equally bum dialogue, and only giving their tepid portrayals a rest when an arrow or ax or other blunt instrument to the head finally forces them to. With neither the script nor the movie's presentation compelling enough to make up for its depressingly underwhelming humans, it's You're Next itself that, in this particular pile-up of dead bodies, proves to be the true stiff.