Film: The Bitter Pill

Remember when Woody Allen used to care about his characters? I miss those days. The mere fact the 77-year-old filmmaker/jazz clarinetist is still churning out roughly one movie a year remains a cause for awe and admiration, but in recent years there has been a noticeable dearth of empathy towards many – not all – of the players populating his work, be they flights of fancy like the overpraised Midnight in Paris or tepid morality plays like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. (No, not many people saw that one.)

Unhappiness and despair appear to be Woody’s stock in trade these days, and this disheartening trend reaches its nadir in Blue Jasmine, his bilious spin on A Streetcar Named Desire. The San Francisco-set dramedy squanders a game supporting cast in order to unleash a rabid, awards-hungry Cate Blanchett on an unsuspecting audience that might be expecting a stateside remake of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Mannered, full of tics and saddled with enough life crises to fill four of Allen’s ensemble comedies, the disgraced socialite Blanchett wrests to life with overly studied abandon demands our sympathies while doing everything in her arsenal to make us wish a car ran her over, Margaret Mitchell-style.

A social butterfly sideswiped by her corrupt, skirt-chasing husband’s (Alec Baldwin) numbers-cooking, Jasmine (Blanchett) moves in with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a divorcée barely making ends meet bagging groceries while raising the unruly kids she had with her ex, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, one of the film’s few bright spots). I’d call the boys’ horseplay grating, but they have nothing on their gullible mom and snobbish aunt. Even though they’re not biological siblings, Ginger feels an obligation to extend her sister a helping hand, much to the consternation of her deadbeat boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale, sporting the summer’s worst haircut), who was hoping to move in with her. There’s an intriguing undercurrent of mutual acrimony between Jasmine and Chili, who dislike each other from the moment they meet, but Allen’s too busy spinning his story wheels to make much of this contempt catch fire.

In fact, it’s Allen’s contempt that takes center stage in Blue Jasmine, at least whenever Blanchett’s not assaulting you with her aggressive A-C-T-I-N-G chops. It’s clear the director wants audiences to become caught up in Jasmine’s rocky journey from pill-popping basket case to humbled career woman, but all too often you sense Allen is looking down his nose at these poor, unfortunate souls, and his condescension is toxic. In the world he creates, most available men are either duplicitous jerks or improbably well-adjusted catches a scene away from becoming unattainable. He’s even more cruel towards his two leading women, who regard an invitation to a party as an opportunity to go husband-hunting. (Louis C.K. And Peter Sarsgaard briefly enliven the dour proceedings as potential love interests for Ginger and Jasmine, respectively, but they come into the picture way too late in the game and then disappear faster than you can say “blatant plot devices.”) Because nothing will solve these women’s financial and emotional problems more successfully than snagging Mr. Right. It’s a baldly misogynist notion that cuts off his characters’ appeal at the knees.

Allen’s cynicism in this context used to be a welcome respite from the banality of many cookie-cutter romantic comedies, but in Blue Jasmine, his once peerless insight into the human condition has curdled into bitterness. We’re left to watch helplessly as his hapless protagonist inflicts lasting damage on those she cares for – and herself – and then we’re asked to feel a little compassion. Good luck with that, Woody. Check back with me when you start giving a damn.

Blanchett’s trendy elitist would have probably been quite at home amidst the posh, blandly regal houses and manicured lawns in the 22nd Century space station at the heart of Elysium, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp’s political tract/sci-fi adventure. In the South African helmer’s overly deterministic future, Earth has become an uninhabitable trash heap. The middle class has vanished in 2154 Los Angeles… and so has personal hygiene, urban planning and flesh-and-blood bureaucrats. Citizens down below point at that orbiting Architectural Digest spread in the skies, which is where the rich and powerful have fled and enjoy a disease-free life of leisure and unending cocktail parties. There are these sleek tanning beds in every household up there that get rid of cancer cells, you see, and the idealistic and terminally ill “have nots” risk boarding an illegal spaceship and being shot down – it’s la migra, Tomorrowland Edition – in order to gain access to the life-saving medical breakthrough their wealthy counterparts have monopolized.

Enter Max (Matt Damon, going bald and generic), who was raised in a Catholic orphanage run by a prophecy-spouting nun who insisted he’d grow up to accomplish Great Things someday. (He became a convicted car thief.) His estranged BFF Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse at the local hospital that, like almost every barely-standing structure in what remains of the city, is named in awkwardly worded Spanish. Her daughter, you see, is dying of leukemia, and she needs a ticket to Elysium, stat! Max would help, but in a workplace mishap, he was exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and has been given a fast-approaching expiration date. Some black market goons install an exo-skeleton on Silkwood Max, a physical transformation that ought to feel exhilarating but instead comes across as Grungy Robocop.

Unbeknownst to Max, the corporate tycoon (William Fichtner) whose personal space shuttle he attempts to hijack has valuable data downloaded into his brain, and once he makes the neural transfer into his own head, he’s relentlessly hunted down by Kruger a vicious gun-for-hire played by District 9‘s Sharlto Copley, whose scenery chewing feels like it was grafted from a more entertaining movie. acting at the behest of Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Elysium’s treasonous, power-hungry secretary of defense, who is planning to go to extreme lengths to ensure her Shangri-La remains unblemished by – shudder – poor non-Anglo folks.

I’m not the biggest fan of the kind of social allegory Blomkamp is trying to pull off here, and it’s that tendency to Make a Statement that marred District 9, an otherwise lean and mean sci-fi mockumentary. But that film had momentum and drive, and the problem with Elysium is that it’s downright tedious when it’s not regurgitating action-movie tropes in a mixture of handheld mayhem and slo-mo long shots that feel recycled from better films. The squeaky clean utopia Delacourt runs with an iron fist needed to be enticing, but mostly it’s just unimaginative affluence writ large.

Give Blomkamp some credit for making an in-your-face case for immigration and health care reform in the confines of a would-be summer blockbuster – conservative pundits will probably go to town on the movie’s unmistakable depiction of socialized medicine – but this type of transgressive agenda is usually better served when your vehicle delivers the slam-bang goods, and the events in the grim, brutally violent Elysium seem so predetermined that you can set a timer to each story beat. It’s almost as if Crash director Paul Haggis had decided to remake Children of Men from a screenplay he co-wrote with the Wachowskis.

Elysium opens in wide release in regular and IMAX screens on Friday. That same day, Blue Jasmine begins depending on the kindness of strangers at Regal Cinemas South Beach, Cinemark Paradise and the Classic Gateway Theatre.

About Ruben Rosario

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