Blue Jasmine

If Woody Allen wasn’t behind Blue Jasmine, would it have ever been made? Had I been handed the script cold, I would have assumed its author was a precocious teenage shut-in who spent his days reading headlines and nights watching TCM while his axe to grind with “phonies” was taking swings at his brain. It’s not just that the rich talk like they’re out of The Bonfire of the Vanities (which could be plausible; they’re pretty out of it, too), but the poor are out of … who knows? The Postman Always Rings Twice? Actually—to slip into lingo that Allen might be hip to—it’s kind of a gas trying to locate the “period” of this dramedy’s present-day, at least if one is perverse like me. There’s a novelty aspect to it: Anybody else’s screenplay would have been workshopped before money was forked over, stars were signed on, and “Action!” was called. It’s like a sight reading in full makeup and costume.

For anyone with a sense of justice, there’s a primordial appeal to this story: the comeuppance of The Wife of Wall Street, specifically the spouse of a Bernie Madoff figure. After a nervous breakdown, and the dissolution of life on the mountaintop, Jasmine’s buried alive by debt: so low that she has to shack up with her sister, who gets by as a grocery clerk in that Mecca of the poor and dispossessed, San Francisco. Notice that, after a mere sentence of plot description, this movie already seems tone-deaf to 2013? Ginger, Jasmine’s peasant-like sister, mentions that her boys have “What’s it called? A.D.D.?,” and boasts that her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) “has the hots” for her. In Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the absence of plausible details about modern-day life could be excused because he had an allegorical vision, just as Allen’s hermetism could be forgiven in the fantasy context of Midnight in Paris and the rarefied air of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But not in Blue Jasmine. Despite his pretensions to realism, he fails to present characters whose motives would be believable in any period—Ginger’s dalliances with Louis C.K., absurd assignations that are brushed aside by her old boyfriend, are Allen’s most heinous lapses—and this failure is coupled with the moldiest, most convenient, “coincidental” dramaturgy. Alec Baldwin, seen in flashbacks as the Ponzi-scheming husband, walks out of his marriage as if he were late for a hair cut; and the big reveal, in which Jasmine’s rosebud is whipped out, betrays that Allen’s as knowledgeable of the law as he is of human life.

And on to apostasy. Cate Blanchett, favored for Best Actress as this Fake Housewife of Fifth Avenue, is somewhat inconsistent. She’s crafty when she’s full-blown Blanchett Dubois, but suffers from having nobody to play against since the other performances (and sometimes hers) seem to have all been recorded in one lazy take. However, at her hair-trigger best—when she babysits her nephews or has her final blowup with Ginger—Blanchett invoked, to my everlasting gratitude, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. When she calls her nephews “boys,” in my mind she is saying “fellas,” as in Don’t fuck with me, fellas!” Like Joan Crawford, Jasmine’s “true self” has collapsed under the weight of antiquated blue-blood affectations. (Blanchett deserves a nod for Best Drag Performance of the year; Jared Leto beware.) But the real loser of the Blue Jasmine blame game is Allen, in a way that’s rather poignant.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis has a surprisingly unironic title. It begins with its title character (Oscar Isaac) performing at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961. “Performing,” in this case, is a loaded word; he’s on intimate terms with his guitar, and the sad lyrics, which he knows by heart, flow from him like a dirge—as dry as sand in an hourglass. When he finishes, Llewyn feebly chatters with his audience, chuckling into his woolly chin: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” Though it’s a canned joke, this is a Coen brothers movie; it resonates like Bert’s cryptic preface to Mary Poppins: “I fear what’s to happen all happened before.”

Llewyn Davis has the richness that has been so painfully lacking in much of the Coens’ recent output. Even True Grit, with its fairy-tale effulgence, had the flatness of cold-in-the-ground history. If anything, the Village bohos here seem too much like people today—but that could proffer a greater authenticity than we are now accustomed to, especially as it pertains to the age-of-innocence early ’60s. (My suspension of disbelief was only challenged by the use of the word “fucked” as an abbreviation of “fucked up”; that variation only came about recently.) Some of the richness comes from the casting of Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake; their humanity—her sensitivity and his showmanship—can be dampened but not reduced to shtick. Unlike so many of the pawn-of-fate cartoons that waltz in and out of Coen brothers movies for an existential yuk, actors like Jeanine Serralles, Jerry Grayson, and F. Murray Abraham all give the impression of having a past. A caricature like the wizened hophead that Llewyn road-trips to Chicago with is more plausible in this light; it lets John Goodman be a real eccentric: an amusing exception rather than an excessive norm. It’s the difference between an ensemble cast and a lot of actors.

Under the pale sunlight provided by the cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, however, all the world looks to be a stage; the spotlight is so bleak that even Goodman’s purple jacket is desaturated. Llewyn had some success when he was part of a duo—and he’s still appreciated by connoisseurs—but he’s an inveterate bridge-burner and couch-surfer when the film starts, lugging his guitar with him, and a cat who scurried out of a patron’s apartment once he’d locked the door. The Coens are stringent enforcers of Murphy’s Law, and Llewyn doesn’t get off easy; but the folk singer, who refuses to sell out and adhere to the new vogue in peppiness, makes bad decisions per a coherent inner logic. With the trilogy of No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man, the Coens had forged a new genre: the feel-bad movie. If their counterpoint is bound by a set of conventions that bring about an artificially happy result, these were determinist downers; they were cleverer than feel-good movies, but, with their arbitrariness, not particularly more substantial. No Country had its cold-sweat sensuousness, but A Serious Man was a distillate of the brothers’ crippling fatalism; even its autobiographical setting implied that it was the root of it, and it went deeper still—into Judaism—without bringing anything back up. It was to art what blue-balling is to orgasm; all roads led to the dead end of fate. As a hero, Llewyn is far more like the Dude in The Big Lebowski than the pischer in A Serious Man: all three are losers, but the Dude carried the loss of ’60s activism with him—and in him. He was a happy patsy, not just a pawn, in a story made of human frostwork rather than fate’s caprice.

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Saving Mr. Banks

A copy of the collected works of the mystic Gurdjieff. A chronic, foreboding cough. An indirect answer when P.L. Travers is asked if she’s a mother. These are the ways that Saving Mr. Banks, a Disney movie about the studio’s quarrel with Travers to adapt her Mary Poppins novels, gently implies there’s a world beyond its family-picture confines. These are the ways it undermines Walt Disney himself while still venerating him and his worldview. If the film’s interpretation of the bohemian writer as a Mrs. Grundy spinster is less than honest, it gives Travers the advantage of being in the body of Emma Thompson, who throws her verbal darts, by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, right on target—at the patriarchy that Disney (Tom Hanks) and his associates at one point represented. In a way, the movie has the teasing fun of a sexless seduction: Travers, with a contract stipulating final-cut approval of the Mary Poppins screenplay, has Disney by the family-friendly balls; and the mogul, who’s spent two decades trying to coax the rights out of her, is in the unusual position of having to appease. (He wants to make the film for his daughters, who love the books. His children, like the rest of the characters’ private lives, go unseen.)

I enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock, quite a bit. The “present-day” scenes have a lulling effect, and much of the old Disney sentimentality—say, Paul Giamatti’s wheelchair-bound daughter—is ladled on in such a way that makes it rather reassuring; Pixar, with its delicate irony, hasn’t completely wiped it clean. It’s easy to imagine that Disneyland in 1961 has the same nostalgic charm for some people as London of 1910 had in Mary Poppins. Again, I think Thompson is essential; she bridges the simplistic contrast between An Education London and A Single Man L.A., and though Travers represents one extreme, she highlights the absurdities of the other. If there’s something reassuring about her chauffeur’s spoonful-of-sugar optimism, it finds its counterpoint when Travers discovers the welcoming committee of Disney stuffed animals in her hotel room, and crams it into her closet. (The sentimentality levels begin to spike when she rescues Mickey and snuggles with him.) There are fine moments of Disney’s team (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Melanie Paxson, and Bradley Whitford) being cowed by Travers in the writers’ room, and even some convincing moments of inspiration at the piano. Much less effective—in fact, tendentious and monotonous—are the flashbacks to the author’s upbringing in Australia. Her father, well played by Colin Farrell, is like one of the dads played by Robin Williams 20 years ago, except he pays for his whimsicality with drinking and an early death. Unfortunately, this is the crux of the movie’s schema.

You see, it’s wise old Uncle Walt who pinpoints the source of Travers’s obstinance, and sells her on forking over the film rights to her work. (We’re often reminded that she does need the money.) Disney wants to make a Mary Poppins that somehow vindicates her father; and, indeed, rewatching the classic for the first time as an adult, I saw that Mr. Banks (a surprisingly affecting David Tomlinson)—who sacrifices his career to spend time with his children—is its emotional center. His change of heart is the wind that blows the nanny away. I guess there’s some symmetry in making a banker see the light in recompense for a free spirit who flopped as a banker; but are we to believe that Travers was sold on Disney’s notion that fairy tales need earthbound morals, and decided to inspire the fathers of the world to do a better job? I don’t see a tribute to her father in this. What I do see is a tribute to Disney’s ideology. He was an industrialist in entertainment; his Manifest Destiny was selling the American Way, for which he was an esteemed ambassador, a self-made innovator from Missouri who made sugarcoated art for the masses. Almost 50 years after his death, the name rarely signifies the man; for skeptics, it’s become a byword for a paternalistic wholesomeness, the aesthetic equivalent of authoritarianism. (Tom Scocca quoted Bambi to define his subject in his treatise on smarm.) Disney branded himself before it was de rigeur; he was an exponent of the old guard that collapsed before culture went all American Hustle, and there hasn’t been an equivalent of him since. (Steve Jobs, with his cult of personality, came close; but his history with his biological children is proof against his being seen as a paternal ideal. The adult-daycare offices of Google or Facebook, however, might come close in the public imagination to what Disney represented in 1961.) Though Hanks doesn’t look like him, he is perfectly cast; he radiates the innocent magic that the icon still inspires. Walt Disney’s legacy lives on in Saving Mr. Banks—even if the movie hints at the fallout that occurred after Mary Poppins was premiered. It imposes his commercially reductive worldview on Travers’s life; her legacy will be viewed from his eyes forevermore.

American Hustle

If the fashions of the 1970s indicate a culture that had given in, the fashions of the 1980s indicate a culture that had given in but was pretending not to have. In the ’70s, couched in disillusionment, people weren’t hypocritical about being hypocritical; Americans indulged in new freedoms that they hadn’t yet learned to be afraid of. This wayward decade seems to be the spiritual home of the director David O. Russell, who turned 16 in 1974: the year that American Hustle takes off. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), whose chest hair garnishes a leisure suit which is open all the way down to the gut, are two fish grooving in this brave new sea, though their sense of class is informed by an even earlier period; they fall in love over a Duke Ellington L.P.

Russell’s take on the ’70s in America differs greatly from Tomas Alfredson’s view of England during the same era in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Britain’s finest hadn’t just given in—they’d given up. For small-time con artists like Irving, who bilks money out of other small fry by way of bogus loans, and Sydney, who assists him in the imperial guise of “Lady Edith,” this is a period of market expansion—until they get busted by Bradley Cooper in curls, an F.B.I. agent named Richie Di Maso. He takes a shine to Sydney—who still talks like Edith, even if her posh accent is less convincing than the Lady Eve’s—and decides to give the pair a break if they help him snare other criminals; they—Irving less willingly than Sydney—agree to help, and their con spirals out to the highest levels of the Mafia. To Irving’s way of thinking, however, it had gotten out of hand once the trap was set on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, N.J., whose graft for the cause of a rebuilt Atlantic City reads as corrupt to Richie but, to Irving, looks like the long game fairly played. All the while, Sydney plays them both—and herself, too.

Though very different in style and tone, American Hustle is a caper comedy with quirk baked in like The Brothers Bloom. Both take the idea of con men to Samuel Beckett extremes, and do so with self-awareness plateauing at healthy levels. But, with its roots in social realities, and in movies rooted in social realities—Bloom popped out of Wes Anderson and Fellini; Hustle Altman and ScorseseHustle attempts something more daring: Russell doesn’t only want to make a movie in the style of the ’70s masters, he wants to zero in on the sensibility that formed them. As someone whose taste in movies was born in that golden age before my birth, I can’t help but be thrilled by the spirit of his attempt. The big filmmakers of the ’70s were primarily Catholics and Jews—Russell is half-Italian and half-Jewish—and the adoration of Mayor Polito smacks of a certain form of tribalism native to the period. If The Godfather showed that the American Dream was paid for in blood, it also showed an ascendancy from Ellis Island that the sons and grandsons of immigrants could take pride in. Like the student protesters at U.C. Berkeley, their forebears were anti-establishment—but anti-establishment because they had to be. In the flattening of wealth that followed World War II, the ethnic diversity of the middle class boomed; but the aspirations were still hunky-dory Protestant in manner. In Bonnie and Clyde, the youth of a generation said “our turn”; that sentiment then rippled through the generation’s ethnic pockets. This self-identification, which can alas get mawkish, turgid, or worse, gave movies like Mean Streets some of their verve. The American Dream was rewritten in the vernacular.

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The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street redefines binge-watching. Leonardo DiCaprio rises over the crest of a callipygian call girl, aligning derrière with moonface like the planets in 2001. A plastic straw bridges one crater to another, conveying what I assume to be stardust; he’d shove the whole Milky Way up his nostrils if he could. This film left me with the knee-jerk desire to brush powder off my own nose, but it left me with a lot more than that.

Psychopaths—emotional black boxes—are a hurdle for dramatists; they lean on psychopaths as plot conveniences (or plot conveniences disguised as existential statements, like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight) or they camp them up and play them for irony like Hannibal Lecter, an aesthete who acquired supernatural powers as his sequels ground on. Scorsese has dealt with psychopaths before, but perhaps never so vividly and so casually as he does here. Putting DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort (and the stockbroker’s fellow pump-and-dump fraudsters) front and center, Scorsese and Terence Winter—who wrote the script—blaze past the mystique of psychopathy that captivates and incapacitates so many artists. Making society’s upper crust look like twits is nothing new, but these men who reached extraordinary heights of wealth and prestige came from a Long Island upbringing that was middle class at most. They manage to fly so high because they’re light; there’s less to them than there is to most people. These assholes really couldn’t care less about prestige or high society. In at least this one regard, they are no different on the inside than addicts on the other end of the social ladder who scrounge for a high wherever they can find it; they have blinders on that spare them from all other considerations; they’re slaves to their own drives, and, in most contexts, would be rather pathetic. The difference is they can sell, and that’s all one needs to win in a laissez-faire economy.

The difference about The Wolf of Wall Street is that the filmmakers don’t deny how awesomely, overwhelmingly seductive Belfort’s salesmanship is. Nor do they see his drives as alien or inhuman or evil. Narrated by Belfort, the film is scaled to his carnality; we get deep inside his shallow mind, which only operates from one conquest to the next, and the effect is that he’s sharing his grandiosity with us. He wants to share, wants us to be like him; if we are not, that’s our loss (and probably his gain at our expense). Belfort’s enthusiasm is disarmingly generous, as illustrated by a speech he makes to his minions when he lauds a female broker who pulled herself up from single-motherhood in debt to a six-figure salary or more; and DiCaprio is generous, too, in how he shares the limelight with the supporting players: a canny, confident move that’s also perfectly in character for a con man who knows how to work a mark. Scorsese jumps headlong into Belfort’s drives because they are what define him.

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