Perhaps Woody Allen should slack off his famous one-movie-a-year pace and settle for every other year. For example: After last year’s mediocre To Rome With Love, he returns in high form with his newest cinematic offering.
Allen’s recent films (Midnight in Paris notwith-standing) have been ensemble pieces with multiple protagonists, but Blue Jasmine is built around Cate Blanchett’s brilliant performance as the title character. Although Jasmine, formerly Jeanette, was born to a working-class family she reinvented herself and quickly ascended to the heights of the super-rich with her marriage to wealthy businessman Hal (Alec Baldwin). Now, with Hal dead and revealed to be a Bernie Madoff-like swindler, Jasmine is plunging back to the bottom faster than she rose from it. The government has confiscated her savings, jewelry, homes and cars. Grabbing at one of her last remaining lifelines, Jasmine travels to San Francisco to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a supermarket clerk who welcomes Jasmine despite being one of the many victims of Hal’s schemes.
When we first meet Jasmine, she seems to embody all of the worst excesses of the upper classes. She appears vain, arrogant and self-centered as she chatters away without pause to the unlucky woman trapped next to her on a cross-country flight. But close observation reveals cracks in her façade. Jasmine is a queen of denial, clinging to her illusions even as she desperately attempts to get back on her feet, an effort that is not helped by her steady diet of pills and alcohol. Blue Jasmine is a loose reimagining of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire with Williams’ legendary faded Southern aristocrat Blanche DuBois morphed into Jasmine. Like Williams, Allen is both mercilessly revealing of his heroine’s flaws and deeply enthralled by her ability to conjure her entire life from a web of fantasy. Allen leavens the widowed lead’s saga with humor as in a hilarious scene where a drunken Jasmine explains life to Ginger’s adolescent sons in a manner that is simultaneously world-weary and self-dramatizing.
Hawkins is perfect as Ginger, a character reminiscent of Cabiria in Federico Fellini’s classic Nights of Cabiria, whose eternal optimism is matched only by her bad choices in men. Other standouts in Allen’s typically excellent cast include Bobby Cannavale as Ginger’s lunk-headed fiancé, Louis C.K. as Ginger’s possible prince charming, Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s macho ex-husband, Peter Sarsgaard as the elegant diplomat who might offer Jasmine a second chance, and Baldwin at his charming and smarmy best as Hal, the con man who provided the phantasmagorical basis for Jasmine’s house of cards.
However, Blue Jasmine rests firmly on the shoulders of Blanchett and she carries it off beautifully. She and Allen amazingly succeed in making us care deeply for a woman who many would despise. And whose downfall might inspire little more than feelings of satisfaction. Allen’s best movies often contemplate our tenuous place in the world and few of his protagonists have embodied that better than the flawed but very human Jasmine.