After the high of last year's Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen is back in playful mode for this rather goofy comedy, which only works for audience members willing to abandon their cynicism and just go with the flow. A solid cast makes the most of Allen's cleverly barbed dialogue, even if the performances and filmmaking sometimes feel a bit slapdash. And Allen's deeper existential themes add a hint of depth to the silliness.
It opens in 1928 Berlin, as the magician Stanley (Colin Firth) is convinced by his friend Howard (Simon McBurney) to travel to the South of France to debunk a young American mystic named Sophie (Emma Stone), who has a wealthy family in her thrall. Not only has Sophie convinced the matriarch (Jacki Weaver) that she can communicate with her dead husband, but she has also attracted the puppy-dog devotion of Brice (Hamish Linklater), the sweetly dim heir to the family fortune. But no matter how hard Stanley tries, he can't prove that Sophie is a fraud, and accepting her supernatural powers completely upends his relentlessly pessimistic view of humanity. Although it's even trickier to convince himself that he might be falling for Sophie.
Allen sets all of this up in a very simple way, prodding Firth to a hilariously ridiculous performance as a repressed Englishman for whom life has to be completely rational. Facing him off against Stone's young, free-flowing American is a bit obvious, but the script makes sure that their barbed banter overflows with witty repartee. This includes astute commentary on Allen's favourite theme: exploring the meaning of life through the contradictory blending of science, religion and human emotion. So even if the performances are rather oddly matched, Firth and Stone find some superb chemistry along the way. Although the snappiest role belongs to Eileen Atkins, as Stanley's beloved aunt, who has a wonderfully dry way of speaking the truth.
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With a riveting performance, Cate Blanchett creates one of Woody Allen's most memorable movie characters in years. And it's also the writer-director's strongest film in recent memory, as it balances comedy and drama in an engaging story that has a kick of resonance as it explores fall-out from the current economical recession.
Blanchett is Jasmine, a New York socialite who has fallen from grace after her husband Hal (Baldwin) lost control of his dodgy financial empire. So Jasmine is forced to move across the country to live with her sister Ginger (Hawkins) in San Francisco. Although she misses her high-society lifestyle, Jasmine gets on with things, finding a job with a local dentist (Stuhlbarg) and a flicker of romance with a rising-star politician (Sarsgaard). But living in Ginger's small apartment with her two kids and her blue-collar boyfriend Chili (Cannavale) takes its toll. And while smoothing the edges with alcohol and Xanax, Jasmine begins to lie to herself and others about her past.
All of the characters here are jaggedly complex, interacting with hilariously observant dialog as their relationships get increasingly messy. But while Jasmine is snobby and prickly, Blanchett also reveals her fragility as she tries to get back on her feet. And Hawkins is just as revelatory as the tenacious and much more generous Ginger. The men around them are just as complicated: Cannavale is hot-tempered but charming, Sarsgaard is kind but a bit slippery, Baldwin is charismatic and over-confident. No one fits into a simple box, which keeps us on our toes and lets the characters worm their way deep under the skin.
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Baldwin plays an architect who returns to his student stomping grounds and meets Jack (Eisenberg), who seems to be living his old life, even as he falls for a friend (Page) of his girlfriend (Gerwig). Meanwhile, there's Leopoldo (Benigni), a dull businessman who suddenly becomes a celebrity for no reason he can see, is pursued everywhere by the paparazzi and starts to enjoy the high life. Across town, Jerry and Phyllis (Allen and Davis) arrive to meet the fiance (Parenti) of their daughter (Pill). Then Jerry pushes a future in-law (Armiliato) into becoming the latest opera sensation. Finally, a young couple arrives from the country to start a new life in the city, but the husband (Tiberi) ends up having a farcical day out with a sexy prostitute (Cruz) while the wife (Mastronardi) meets her favourite actor (Albanese).
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