First thing’s first: this is another “serious” one. A lot of people went into Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s latest offering, with smiles already plastered to their faces. Just waiting to laugh. Those same people ended up leaving the theatre thoroughly confused and/or angry. Blue Jasmine isn’t a funny movie, and it certainly wasn’t meant to be. As he did with his non-comedies Interiors, Another Woman, and more recently with Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, Woody Allen decided to take a break from his annual comedic offering in favor of scratching his occasional depresso itch. Though this time he benched Ingmar Bergman and gave Tennessee Williams some playing time. Woody managed to land Cate Blanchett—who recently won a Golden Globes Award for the role—and so this movie was bound to stand quite a bit taller than his work of the past decade or so (Midnight in Paris excluded). And it did. Blue Jasmine is a captivating, involving and even frightening movie.
The film starts off with Jasmine—Blanchett—en route to her sister’s apartment in San Francisco. In a conversation with the woman sitting next to her on the plane—a conversation we initially expect to stir up some classic Woody Allen one-liners, and which jarringly never does—we learn of Jasmine’s history as a New York socialite and wife of a now-disgraced businessman. Jasmine used to host dinner parties with New York City’s most wealthy and influential, but now it’s all gone bye bye. Her lousy husband’s criminal hijinx have have left her with absolutely nothing, and now she’s moving in with her half-forgotten sister, tail between legs.
Woody plays with flashback throughout the entire movie; even as we follow Jasmine’s journey across the country, we get to meet Jasmine in her glory days, when her relationship with Hal (Alec Baldwin) was still hot off the presses. Though even when things were good, there is always the foreshadowing that Hal is cutting a few too many corners with respect to his latest real estate endeavors, and that Jasmine is consciously turning a blind eye to fairly obvious criminal activity. We also learn pretty early on that Hal has a bit of a problem keeping his trousers waist-high when it comes to the various female lawyers/accountants/artists who cross his path. Turns out he’s just as adept at evading the suspicious eye of his loving wife as he is at ducking the IRS. For now, anyway.
Through Jasmine’s sister, Ginger, played by an adorable if ultimately misused Sally Hawkins, and her ex-husband Augey—an unsettlingly effective Andrew Dice Clay—we learn that Jasmine and Hal had once cheated them out of a large sum of money. It is only Ginger’s good heart and dedication to family that keeps her from telling Jasmine, in the woman’s moment of greatest need, to take a flying leap. We soon learn something else: Jasmine had suffered a severe “rave to yourself on a street corner” nervous breakdown shortly after her initial fall from grace. The guys in the white suits had to intervene with shock therapy. Hal’s undoing robbed Jasmine of more than just her financial security.
Once settled in to her sister’s untidy apartment, which the two women share with Ginger’s rambunctious two boys and, often, her brutish fiancee Chili, Jasmine sets to work trying to put together the framework for a brand new life. She’ll have to do it the hard way: “mundane” employment and night school. To Jasmine, working as a lowly receptionist in a dentist’s office consummates an embarrassing fall from grace. But, to her credit, she manages to swallow her great pride and muscle through.
After some initial setbacks—a smitten employer who won’t take “no” for an answer, as well as a series of “Streetcar”-esque arguments with Chili—things finally start looking up for Jasmine. At a dinner party she meets Dwight, a young widower and politician hopeful (Peter Sarsgaard) and, thanks to a little bending-of-the-truth on Jasmine’s part, the two seem destined for each other. A fast-moving relationship develops and it’s looking like Jasmine might have a real shot at starting an all new high-class life.
Of course, the demons of Jasmine’s past rear their ugly heads at precisely the wrong moment. As we learn in flashback the full details of Hal’s discretions and fall from grace, present day Jasmine suffers a heartbreaking reversal of fortune, which ultimately sets her on a downward spiral.
Cate Blanchett’s performance in this movie is every bit deserving of the Golden Globe it earned her. Woody Allen doesn’t hide that Jasmine isn’t the kindest and most tolerant of human beings, Blanchett makes us feel nothing but sympathy for her. She is pretentious and patronizing, rolling her eyes at the silliness of her loudly middle-class sister and brother-in-law, yet, somehow, we still want to see her rebound from this low point in her life.
I can’t say the same for much of the rest of the cast. Alec Baldwin plays his role competently, but with no real originality. Watching him, it feels like he made a conscious decision to play the role “like in a Woody Allen movie,” as so many big name actors seem to do when they find themselves in such a position. In these films, many actors seem to switch right to “self-absorbed dinner-party-ish” line delivery, regardless of story or scenario. Baldwin does a lot of that here. The problem? Cate does not. Cate Blanchett so believably embodies the complicated character of Jasmine it almost felt at times like Baldwin belongs in an entirely different Woody Allen movie—one of those recent, painfully unambitious ones.
Not to single out Baldwin. I had a bone to pick with many of the other casting decisions. Sally Hawkins seems unsure of what emotion she’s supposed to convey in some of the key scenes between Ginger and Jasmine (though perhaps Woody, as director, is more to blame for this). And I’m not sure if I’m supposed to like, hate, dread, or root for Bobby Cannavale’s Chili. Where this character’s inspiration, Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar, is a brilliantly flesh-out “brute” and definite jerk, Chili comes through as, well, let’s say a nice guy having a bad week. There are times where Woody seems to want us to root for the sister to dump Chili and get with someone “good” for a change; but, really, this guy comes across as a sort of lovable knucklehead who has a slight propensity for drama. Ginger could do a lot worse.
This is not to say Cate Blanchett is the solitary bright spot in Blue Jasmine. Andrew Dice Clay was surprisingly spot-on in the role of Ginger’s ex-husband. In fact, I would have liked to see plenty more of him. He somehow brought to the film a much needed dose of regular. Peter Saarsgard did a fine job with Dwight, Jasmine’s love interest and politician hopeful. His affair with Jasmine springs up pretty fast and falls apart even faster, and Saarsgard manages to bob and weave in perfect sync with Blanchett. Then there’s the fairly brief appearance by Louie C.K., who does his regular but fun “Louie” shtick as if he’s part of some kind of innovative meta movie/television character exchange program. I could have done with a little more of him too.
Blue Jasmine suffers a bit from Woody Allen’s chronic case of “senioritis.” One gets the impression that Woody simply doesn’t care enough these days to really coach his films down to ideal fighting weight—too many rewrites and extra takes would keep him away from his Knicks. Which is a shame, because his movies these days aren’t all that far from being much better than what we’re ultimately presented with—the screenplays and production values always seem quite workable. Wouldn’t take much. But with this particular film Woody seems happy enough to have landed Blanchett as his lead. Just a little more elbow grease—smarter casting, mostly—and this film could have been truly special. And, really, the same goes for most of Woody’s recent movies.
Nevertheless, this is Woody’s best film since the excellent Midnight in Paris, which, itself, was his best movie in a very long time. Initially, my disappointment with some of the casting distracted me from the tragedy of Jasmine’s story. In the end, I really got caught up in Jasmine’s emotionally perilous attempt at a return to the high life. Honestly, I couldn’t pry my eyes from the screen. And the film’s chilling endcap stuck with me for days afterward. So few movies even come close to doing something like that anymore. As a brain-rest time diversion, I’ve since watched the film Pacific Rim. I nearly laughed myself into a coma. So I’ll put my nit-picky gripes aside this time. Woody earned it.
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