Sunday, January 26, 2014

American Hustle – Blue Jasmine - Philomena

American Hustle succeeds by virtue of razzle-dazzle and acting chutzpah. The tone is set even before the opening scene with the brief advisory: Some of These Things Really Happened. It’s a gleeful hint of the dynamic narrative to follow, which consists of scams and counter-scams, romances real and feigned, friendships formed and destroyed, as a young FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) sets out to grease his career path by exploiting the gifts of two small-time con artists (Amy Adams and Christian Bale) to ensnare some local politicians. Add Jennifer Lawrence to the mix as Bale’s manic-depressive wife and Jeremy Renner as the populist mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and you’ve got a feast of grade-A character acting. Robert de Niro’s cameo as a mob boss adds an element of gravity to the story at just the right time.

The film is cleverly edited, so that the viewer seldom knows as much as do the characters themselves about what’s going on. Brief flashbacks occasionally fill in the blanks, but during the first twenty minutes, we really have no idea who is on who’s side or what’s going down. Viewers may leave the theater wondering if they really care for any of these people—but it would be hard to deny that it was fun following the twists and turns of the plot.

Blue Jasmine, in contrast, is thin on character. Woody Allen seldom elevates his screenplays above the level of cliché, and this film is no different. Two woman, adopted sisters, have followed different paths. One is beautiful and (until recently) wealthy. The other is a plain, working-class woman, divorced, who bags groceries at the local supermarket. They have nothing in common, but when the golden girl (Cate Blanchett) loses everything, she has no other alternative but to move in with her sister (Sally Hawkins).

We follow the lives of this odd couple for a few weeks, but it’s rough sledding. Their arguments are tiresome and repetitive, their amours predicable. And there are very few jokes to enliven the journey. Hawkins’s ex-husband isn’t very interesting and her new boyfriend is worse. Alec Baldwin, as Blanchett’s husband, is, well, Alec Baldwin. 

In the end, Blanchett’s portrayal of a woman in steep decline, though carefully nuanced, is hardly more than a series of reflexive lunges for the Xanax bottle followed by the vodka bottle. I suppose she’s doing her best, but as I mentioned earlier, the script is paper-thin. The best parts of the movie are the lavish parties in Long Island and San Francisco, during which we get to admire the décor and the real estate.

There is something to be said for a film that depicts how a human life can crumble. It elicits our compassion. Unfortunately, due to its lack of convincing detail, Blue Jasmine barely scratches the surface of this theme. (For a far better treatment of it, try Susan Seidelman’s film, Smithereens).

Philomena is a gem. Here, once again, we have class juxtapositions, with Judy Dench as a small-town Catholic woman looking for the son she gave up for adoption a half-century ago, and Steve Coogan as the sophisticated (but recently-canned) BBC journalist who agrees to write a “human interest” story about her, almost as an act of personal desperation. Coogan is looking for something, too—a meaningful life. And although the quest to find Dench’s son serves as the focus of the film, much more of it is devoted to how this odd duo learn to communicate with one another during their search. Dench’s naiveté and religious faith mask some serious truths that Coogan is sensitive enough to pick up on. And Coogan’s wry irony is sometimes even funnier as we watch it sail right over Dench’s head.  

Here’s a sample exchange: the two are in Washington, D.C. standing in the Lincoln memorial in front of the far-larger-than-life statue of the president. Coogan says, as a means of making conversation. “You know, Lincoln was the tallest American president.” Dench replies, “Oh, you can see that even when he’s sitting down.”

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