Rand Richards Cooper September 26, 2013 - 4:25pm
At the outset, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now looks like a throwback to such 1980s teen comedies as Risky Business and Say Anything. Based on an eponymous novel by Tim Tharp, the film chronicles crucial weeks in the life of high-school senior and party monster Sutter Keeley (Miles Teller). Boisterous, wisecracking Sutter is the guy who never stops talking, never stops bluffing; he expresses a certain kind of rampaging and sarcastic joie de vivre, and in return enjoys a certain kind of popularity—one not untinged by envy and contempt. He’s part king, part buffoon.
Beneath such swagger presumably lie large insecurities, and it’s unclear at first whether Ponsoldt and his scriptwriter, Michael H. Weber, understand this—whether the film is going to explore Sutter’s near-pathological extroversion, or (à la Risky Business) merely celebrate and enact it. The movie itself seems amped up, and the opening scenes, in which the notorious lothario Sutter and his nerdy best friend exchange notes on girls, leave us uncertain whether it will reach for more.
And then it does. Looming in Sutter’s life are graduation, college, and The Future—none of which he is facing with equanimity, or at all. “This is our time,” he pleads with his hot girlfriend, Cassidy. “Live in the now!” The importance of living in the moment draws forth poetical raptures from Sutter; but when his girlfriend asks about his future plans, he goes mute. It’s clear why. He’s failing at school, has no father at home to guide him, and has reached the ominous point where sipping from a stylish pocket flask begins to look like alcoholism. On the other hand, he’s good with people, he’s generous, and he’s honest. When his boss at his part-time job in a clothing store tells him he’ll take him full-time as long as he promises not to drink on the job, he demurs: “You know I can’t promise you that.”
What Sutter needs is a stiff dose of perspective and—as antidote to his rampant outward-directedness—some practice in solitude. He gets both when he meets the sweetly shy Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley, of The Descendants). Like Sutter, Aimee lives in a single-parent family, but unlike him she has accustomed herself to self-sacrifice (she has a paper route whose proceeds go directly to her mother) while spending her spare time immersed in books and art. We understand, better than she, that she’s invisible in Sutter’s social circles not because she isn’t pretty—she is—but because she hangs back, with a shyness that is not fearful but deliberate; she’s busy marshaling inner resources for the life ahead.
In other words, she’s the exact opposite of Sutter. Enjoyably The Spectacular Now explores the contours, in a Briggs-Myers kind of way, of the introvert/extrovert romance. The contrast draws us in, sparking both curiosity and worry. Will Aimee’s sincerity spur the latent goodness we sense in Sutter, or will he gobble up her affection and break her heart? Does Sutter even understand how precious a person has fallen into his life? Ponsoldt has found a canny, slightly off-center way to structure his romantic comedy, grounding us in thrilled recollection of the vehemence of first love, but also in a protective worry. This is a film about teens that is slyly pitched to their parents.
Eventually, Sutter’s live-for-the-moment credo receives a fearsome corrective in the form of his father (Kyle Chandler), who bailed on the family years ago and who turns out, when Sutter and Aimee hunt him down, to be a shiftless barfly, his aging good looks and rambling bar patter presenting a scary vision of Sutter’s possible future. Bit by bit, Sutter’s defenses crumble, leading to a moving scene in which his mother (a deft cameo by Jennifer Jason Leigh) consoles and reassures him. “I’m just like him!” Sutter wails, meaning his father. “You aren’t,” she insists. “You aren’t like him at all. He can’t love anyone. But you have the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known.”
Like Ponsoldt’s two earlier films, Smashed and Off the Black, The Spectacular Now is situated amid broken marriages, absent fathers, and alcoholism. And like them it is a movie in which—its title notwithstanding—nothing spectacular occurs. Ponsoldt proceeds straightforwardly, even earnestly; you quickly see what is in the mix, the lessons that are to be learned. And yet somehow the film avoids triteness and makes you care. Thanks goes in part to beguiling performances by Teller and especially by Woodley, who resembles a young Laura Linney and delivers something of the same bright-eyed vulnerability mixed with deep reserves of strength. You watch this romance and its sweet and faltering exchanges the way you watch your children living their lives—with joy, recollection, hope, and a clenched and nervous anticipation of their being hurt.
IT'S DIFFICULT TO PINPOINT what bothers me about Woody Allen’s movies over the past decade-plus without sounding ad hominem. But the films he continues to churn out, one per year, leave a sour aftertaste of ennui. I find their youthful bonhomie meretricious and evasive; the films themselves feel like refuges from his own ennui. Allen uses them to “keep himself busy,” as he said in an interview. Is it surprising that they often seem like busy work? I find myself beginning to dread his movies’ invariable soundtrack—that jaunty background refrain of Parisian chansons and up-tempo blues. Critics, praising one movie then damning the next three, portray the seventy-seven-year-old director as declining but still dangerous, an aging slugger who’s batting .200 but can still knock it out of the park—as he did in 2005 with Match Point.
And now there’s Blue Jasmine, “a vital and vibrant knockout of a movie,” proclaims one critic; “a film that builds to a mighty emotional pitch,” writes another. The movie is an homage to A Streetcar Named Desire—or adaptation, or loose reworking, or parody, or something—with the lead role played by Cate Blanchett, whose triumphant portrayal of Blanche DuBois anchored the 2009 Broadway revival of the Tennessee Williams classic. Allen reconfigures Blanche as Jasmine French, a Manhattan socialite married to a hedge-fund manager, Hal (Alec Baldwin), who masterminds a Bernie Madoff–like Ponzi scheme and then, when it implodes, kills himself. Adrift and penniless, Jasmine goes to stay with her plain-Jane younger sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whose drab working-class life in San Francisco she has always snootily maligned. The film skillfully interweaves flashbacks of Jasmine’s golden years in New York, where she proceeds in willful blindness to her husband’s reckless philandering and his financial skullduggery, with scenes of her disdainful and fumbling attempts to assemble some kind of life in the real world. The clash of her arrogant superiority with the humiliating comeuppances of her reduced status rings those American notes of class, money, power, and sexuality that made Streetcar—both the play and the Elia Kazan film—so powerfully resonant.
What you get when you run this material through Woody Allen’s comic mill is a fascinating mish-mash of a film. The menace of Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski is replaced by the clownishness of Bobby Cannavale’s Chili, who as Ginger’s tattooed and leering boyfriend looks scary enough (especially to viewers who recall his glowering turn as the beast Gyp Rosetti in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire)—but who, when confronted with Ginger’s dalliance with another man, breaks down crying in a supermarket, pathetically thanking the manager for handing him a Kleenex. Where Brando’s character moved relentlessly toward misogynistic violence, Chili is all conciliation. “Let’s let sleeping dogs lie,” he advises Ginger, in the face of Jasmine’s withering contempt.
Many aspects of the film are unsatisfying, not least the nostalgie de la boue expressed in the portrayal of Ginger and Chili, those friendly dumb mutts, forever quarreling and then lustily reconciling. A clumsy subplot with Jasmine struggling as a receptionist in the office of a bumbling and love-besotted dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) barely rises above the old TV show Love American Style. And Peter Sarsgaard as a wealthy State Department employee who materializes as Jasmine’s suitor and rescuer, only to fall afoul of her deceptions, emanates nothing of the contemptuous rage churned up by Karl Malden in his Oscar-winning role in Streetcar.
But Blue Jasmine is redeemed again and again by Blanchett’s mesmerizing performance. Javier Aguirresarobe’s camera lingers on closeups of the actress’s face, now defiantly serene, now furtively calculating, now harrowed and absent. Narcissistic anxiety and self-preoccupation have been a constant motif of Allen’s work, both as a standup comic and in his movies. Blue Jasmine takes that as its starting point—and then, faithfully following the Streetcar roadmap, pushes it toward something Allen has rarely if ever touched, namely, psychosis. Increasingly tormented and muttering to herself, Blanchett’s Jasmine is a frighteningly convincing portrayal of mental anguish. In one bravura scene she takes Ginger’s two little boys out to a diner, where she brazenly drinks and pops pills and, in answer to their innocent questions about her former life, embarks on a long, twisty confessional that leaves them with their mouths hanging open.
Admirers of Streetcar will miss the side of Blanche that was brave and strong. Allen skips over this while ramping up the narcissistic, greedy, and delusional aspect of Jasmine’s character. One thing you can say about Woody—he nails the monstrous nihilism of a certain kind of wealthy New Yorker. It is both a personality pathology and a type bordering on caricature; and with someone else in the lead role one can imagine Blue Jasmine played more as farce than tragedy. It might actually make more sense that way—at any rate, it would fit the soundtrack! But while you’d forget that movie overnight, like most late-Woody efforts, Blanchett’s operatic and annihilating performance makes Blue Jasmine a keeper.
About the Author
Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.