Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine gives the prosperous some perspective.
She prefers to be called Jasmine, but her name is really Jeanette. We first meet her on a plane, blathering her life story to a fellow passenger who would obviously rather read. Jasmine’s is a rags-to-riches tale: Swept off her feet in college by a dashing young financial wizard to the tune of “Blue Moon,” she has a glorious, worry-free life of dinner parties, charity balls and the kind of vacation homes owned by people who use seasons as verbs (“summering” in the Hamptons). Yet it’s impossible not to notice the panic behind her eyes as she too adamantly insists upon her happiness. Played by Cate Blanchett in a go-for-broke turn, Jasmine is a frayed nerve. Clearly something terrible has happened.
Woody Allen’s 43rd theatrical feature, Blue Jasmine, has become a surprise late-summer breakout hit with adult audiences deprived of entertainment, and it’s easy to see why. This is a handsomely crafted movie with some excellent performances and a structure that provides surprises. (At this point, Allen’s been doing this for so long and so prolifically that even his lousiest movies are well made.) It’s also a strange little duck, pitched nervously somewhere between tragedy and farce, existing in that refined, almost science-fiction universe where only Woody Allen characters reside.
Jasmine is on her way to San Francisco to crash with her estranged sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Things aren’t as rosy as she tried so desperately to make them sound. Turns out her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was a Bernie Madoff kind of fraud, who squandered hundreds of millions of other people’s dollars and then hanged himself in prison after the FBI came calling. Jasmine’s flat broke with no friends and zero job experience. All she has left is an increasingly desperate air of smug superiority.
Allen’s riffing on A Streetcar Named Desire here, and since Blanchett recently played Blanche DuBois on Broadway she’s arrived ready and raring to go. Ginger works bagging groceries and dates a cheerful, hot-tempered Cro-magnon, who of course is named Chili. Jasmine is appalled by the tiny apartments, the boorish mannerisms and the idea that she might have to find a job she considers beneath her. Welcome to the 99 percent, sweetheart.
The movie deftly alternates scenes from the present with flashbacks to Jasmine’s gilded period, lingering on the lavish estates, ostentatious jewelry and long conversations about absolutely nothing. As the movie wears on, Allen gradually reveals the almost superheroic capacity for denial that enabled Jasmine’s storybook Manhattan fantasy to carry on for so long. Her beloved hubby is such a phony that at first the role seems to be one of Baldwin’s worst performances until you realize Hal’s just full of it. All the adultery and duplicity was going on right in front of Jasmine’s face. But Jeanette didn’t want her to see it.
Sometimes Blue Jasmine feels like a comedy, in which a condescending rich bitch finds her comeuppance in the working world. She begrudgingly takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office, where the boss (a very funny Michael Stuhlbarg) is so smitten he starts wearing more colorful ties to work. Yet there’s such an anguish to Blanchett’s performance that things never stay funny for very long. She’s getting the lion’s share of kudos and predictable Oscar talk, but for my money Sally Hawkins is even better as the quietly put-upon Ginger, regarding her annoying, troubled sister with a tender familial concern that’s a beautifully underplayed counterbalance to Jasmine’s histrionics.
Of course, it must be noted that nobody goes to see a Woody Allen movie for nuanced portrayals of the working class. After all, the guy is 77 years old, and I assume it’s been decades since he’s even spoken to anyone who isn’t a millionaire. Everything Woody Allen knows about these people he learned from watching The Honeymooners, but I find something quaintly endearing about his cloistered 1950s sensibility. (In this movie, computers are mysterious things nobody can understand.) Besides, all the authenticity Blue Jasmine needs is provided in a startling supporting turn from Andrew Dice Clay.
Yes, you read that right. The disgraced macho-pig comedian delivers a performance of real complexity as Ginger’s ex-husband, Augie. We come to find out that he’s got a very good reason for resenting Jasmine (whom he insists on calling Jeanette), and late in the movie he stands toe-to-toe with Blanchett in a crucial confrontation that works as a dramatic punch to the gut.
Andrew Dice Clay holding his own against Cate Blanchett? Now I’ve seen it all.
Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Stuhlbarg and Louis C.K. Written and directed by Woody Allen. At Coolidge Corner and West Newton Cinema.