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Cate Blanchett scored a great theatrical success four years ago as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. But rather than preserving her performance in a new film version of the play, as some suggested, she’s gone a different route, creating a modern emotional sister of downward-spiraling Blanche in Woody Allen‘s fine character study Blue Jasmine. Going beyond the urban neuroses that are standard equipment for inhabitants of Allen’s world, Jasmine is stricken by a life reversal so severe that her ability to ever cope with it becomes genuinely questionable, to the point of tragedy. Although marred by a couple of too-convenient plot contrivances, this often humorous drama lands firmly in the plus column among the Woodman’s recent works, with Blanchett’s tour de force making this a must-see for the cognoscenti and a likely mid-range earner by the director’s standards.
Quite apart from the central performance, this is also a film that prompts the response: Woody Allen and Andrew Dice Clay, whoda thunk it? In fact, the lugs in the life of Jasmine’s lower-class sister are played by Clay, Bobby Cannavale and Louis C.K., which contributes a vivid emphasis on class and financial distinctions that doesn’t usually enter Allen’s field of vision.
And the divide could hardly more pronounced than it is between the former and current circumstances faced by Jasmine, a fortyish blond beauty who once ruled the New York social roost as the wife of billionaire financier Hal (Alec Baldwin) and has now been reduced to pennilessness and disgrace with the collapse of her husband’s empire and his suicide in prison.
The two worlds are sharply contrasted through the film’s intercutting of past and present. When first seen, Jasmine is in first class on a plane heading to San Francisco, but her ultimate destination is a small apartment in a dodgy part of town where, as a last resort, she’ll stay with her grocery-bagger sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Biologically, they aren’t actually related, as both were adopted from different sets of birth parents, with Jasmine drawing the winning genetic hand in all departments. Needing a drink in her hand at all times, Jasmine confesses to have had a nervous breakdown and is still experiencing persistent aftershocks, insisting, “I can’t be alone.”
Unfortunately for her, that means being surrounded by Ginger, who extends herself as generously as she can; her two noisy young sons; ex-husband Augie (Clay), a low-life handyman who blames Jasmine for his own dismal financial straits, and her hot-headed new boyfriend Chili (Cannavale), who, as Jasmine can’t help but point out, seems to be no improvement on Augie.
Jasmine’s current Tennessee Williams-like fragility is effectively contrasted with and foreshadowed by incisive flashbacks to her well-heeled Manhattan lifestyle, where she may have been neurotic but was also massively pampered by her husband and felt in control of her glamorous if circumscribed world. Having no reason to be suspicious of her husband’s business practices, she also turned a blind eye to the smooth operator’s extramarital dalliances. Very much a Ruth Madoff figure (even to the point of moving in with her sister), Jasmine was utterly blindsided when her house of cards fell apart.
In desperation, she takes a job as a receptionist for a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg), who turns out to be a lech, and tries to learn computer skills while setting her sights on a career in interior design, something to which she might actually be suited. But when Ginger meets a new man (Louis C.K.) whom Jasmine thinks might represent a step up for her sister, Chili goes ballistic, making domestic life for everyone nearly unbearable.
The New York interludes, upscale even by Allen’s standards, are glibly entertaining and to the point, illustrating Hal’s fast-shuffling business dealings and discreet assignations on the one hand and Jasmine’s self-absorbed obliviousness on the other. The San Francisco scenes underscore how the chaos, combativeness and aggressiveness triggered by the working-class men in Ginger’s orbit exacerbate Jasmine’s condition. Not that being left alone would be any better, far from it for this woman whose whole world, including her son, has vanished overnight, leaving her hanging by the most slender thread.
Possible salvation finally turns up in the agreeable form of Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a debonair diplomat and widower whose amorous attentions are are sincere as Jasmine’s needs are desperate. But this golden opportunity only serves to illuminate that her problems may rest less in what’s been done to her than, as with Streetcar‘s Blanche, in a fundamental propensity for self-deception that may prove inescapable. The conclusion is startling and feels entirely right.
Would that the same could be said of some of Allen’s plotting. The writer-director’s film-per-year fertility with original screenplays is unrivaled and enormously impressive, but just a few days devoted to a final polish might have dealt with the too-easy manner in which some climactic chance revelations are handled. In outright comedies, such contrivances are not only excusable but often welcome as part of the artificial fabric, but in mixed-tone works such as this that are meant to be plausible, they come off as lazy.
Still, this in no way detracts from the dramatic legitimacy and layered texturing of Blanchett’s performance, which lies at the center of the film and defines its achievement. Brittle, sophisticated, myopic about the world at large and without sufficient emotional underpinnings to cope when the rug’s pulled from under her, Jasmine rates with any of the numerous other major female characters Allen has written over the decades just as it reflects aspects of some of them, notably in Alice, Another Woman and Husbands and Wives.
Hawkins’ under-achieving Ginger is perhaps as much burdened by deficiency of imagination as Jasmine is by an over-abundance of it; in her second turn for Allen, the British actress is winningly self-effacing. Clay and Cannavale are right on the money as easily affronted goombahs with grudges against Jasmine, while Louis C.K. puts his own stamp on some very Allen-esque lines. Baldwin wears his handsome Wall Street weasel like a glove, and Sarsgaard cuts a figure for Jasmine that properly does seem too good to be true.
Opens: July 26 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Perdido Productions
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tammy Blanchard, Max Casella, Alden Ehrenreich
Director: Woody Allen
Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Executive producers: Leroy Schechter, Adam B. Stern
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Suzy Benzinger
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
PG-13 rating, 98 minutes
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