Fast approaching his ninth decade of life, Woody Allen’s career rolls along undeterred, as he continues to work at his typically prolific, one film per year, pace. Admittedly, I don’t make it a point to see every one of his movies, and I’ve yet to feel the need to fill in the gaps and catch up on his films I’ve missed in the last decade. I can rest perfectly easy knowing I may never see “Scoop,” “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” “Cassandra’s Dream” or “Whatever Works” (oh wait, I have actually seen the latter two films). Point being, with a work rate as tireless as Allen’s, it’s to be expected there will be a few misses sprinkled in with the hits. With his latest, “Blue Jasmine,” he knocks it out of the park.
“Blue Jasmine,” which echoes Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” is more drama than comedy, but mixes tones with ease. It also pairs actors who you probably never would’ve imagined sharing screen space (Cate Blanchett and Andrew Dice Clay?), but does it so effectively that you wonder why it took so long for them to appear in the same film. At his best, Allen has a way of making things work that, at least on paper, shouldn’t, and if there’s an American filmmaker who more distinctively sprinkles his/her personality into their movies, I’ve yet to see that person’s work.
Cate Blanchett plays the Jasmine of the film’s title, a 40-something woman who has just arrived in San Francisco from New York, after manically talking a complete stranger’s ear off on the cross-country flight. Jasmine, you see, is in the midst of a crisis that’s already cost the woman her husband, son and incredibly luxurious life. Shuttling back and forth between the grim present and mostly idyllic past, we watch Jasmine in her former life as she enjoys aristocratic comforts while married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Wall Street type millionaire involved in shady business practices, and gradually see that life fall apart.
Arriving at her divorced sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) modest apartment deep in debt and with no means of financial support, Jasmine still carries on the part of the sniveling elitist. She disliked her polar opposite sister’s former husband, Augie (Dice Clay), and now looks down her nose at the woman’s current working class boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Though she feels it’s beneath her, Jasmine takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office, a position she doesn’t seem particularly qualified to fill, enrolls in a computer class, moves in with Ginger and her two young sons for an indefinite period of time and has a vague (at best) plan to become an interior designer.
Jasmine is several steps beyond the neurosis of the standard Allen protagonist — by the time she reaches San Francisco, she’s basically lost it. Even in her lowest moments, she refuses to relinquish her haughty attitude — it’s the only thing she can use to defend herself against a world that suddenly doesn’t find her so special. While in San Francisco, Jasmine will shake up her sister’s relationship and find a glimmer of hope in a man she feels is of her caliber (Peter Sarsgaard), while attempting to free herself of a past that won’t let her easily escape.
Cate Blanchett is magnificent. The actress was saddled with the unenviable task of having to make this unlikable character just sympathetic enough for the viewer to stay with over the course of a feature film and she brilliantly accomplishes this goal. The key to the film’s success has little to do with the degree to which you like Jasmine, which doesn’t seem possible, it has to do with not disliking her. Blanchett convincingly exposes the character’s vulnerability and her complete lack of self-awareness, and this prevents Jasmine from being insufferable. The rest of the ensemble cast is strong (yes, including Dice Clay), and Allen’s dialogue smoothly alternates between stylized and understated/true-to-life.
As common courtesy, of course, I won’t say much about the ending, except that films which actually end when they should are a rare commodity these days — this movie joins that small group. As per usual for Allen, this is far from a high concept film, but the depth in which he explores his central character is a grand achievement.
You can’t expect Woody Allen to reinvent the wheel at this point in his career, but you can expect his films to be of a certainly quality in line with his reputation. “Blue Jasmine” easily surpasses those expectations.