Woody Allen’s recent run of critical and box office success, beginning with Sweet and Lowdown (1999), has bedazzled audiences with variety and precision that has harkened back to earlier Allen heydays of the 1970s and the ’80s. There have been full-on acting assaults — the seemingly volcanic eruptions of Sean Penn in Lowdown and Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona — but just as often he has thrilled us with complex moral dilemmas (Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream) or tickled our fancies with pure whimsy and unabashed charm (Midnight in Paris). Yet, nothing thus far would seem to prepare audiences for Blue Jasmine.
Allen turns his attention to the financial crisis of 2008 and a Bernie Madoff-type named Hal (Alec Baldwin), one of those Wall Street titans building cloud-based castles in the sky that blot out both the sun and common sense. He’s gruff and arrogant, all façade with no substantive core inside his bulked-up blustering frame. And his sleight of hand con game has drawn in Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a fellow schemer with dreams and no desire to work to achieve them. She has a past life under constant revision, including a working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) who has a sketchy taste in men.
Jasmine hitches her wagon to Hal and refuses to look back or around her, even at the obvious signs that things are not as rosy with Hal as they seem. His barely disguised philandering and wheeling and dealing with finances get papered over with expensive gifts and trips. When the bottom completely falls out from under her, with Hal under arrest and eventually taking matters into his own hands, Jasmine has to face facts (well, as much as a self-deluding person like Jasmine can) and figure out what the next phase of her life will be.
She retreats to San Francisco, shacking up with her sister.
Ginger has already lost a nest egg and a husband (Andrew Dice Clay) as a result of falling for one of Hal’s pipe dreams. Jasmine’s arrival triggers a rift in Ginger’s latest relationship with Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a hardscrabble type who sees Jasmine for what she is, but has a difficult time articulating things to Ginger in a way that she can appreciate. Ginger loves her sister, despite having an awareness of the ill will that hovers around her.
Jasmine dominates every single frame of the film and note of the narrative with a neediness and survivalist cunning reminiscent of Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire and Elizabeth Taylor’s Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. That doesn’t necessarily sound like Woody Allen terrain, but this pairing with Blanchett inspires and challenges both of them to dig and scratch until there’s nothing but a raw and bloody psychic wound laid bare. It would have been easy and convenient to play Jasmine for a laugh — something Allen could have done in his sleep — but there’s never a moment where either he or Blanchett wink or nod in our direction to acknowledge a joke. Jasmine and the situation are frighteningly real.
In fact, it is so visceral a performance that audiences may need to avert their gaze from Jasmine’s dank sweaty pits or her pitiful delusions of grandeur. The closest we have come to this kind of figure in recent films might be Mary (Mo’Nique), the vile mother in Precious, which earned Mo’Nique an Academy Award. Such dark women, wallowing in their blues, suck all of the air and life out of the corners of the frame. And that is exactly what Blanchett does here.
Allen has proven in the past to have an affinity for moral ambiguity and compromised character, but Blue Jasmine is not merely trafficking in philosophical theatrics. This is, in a twisted way, a psychological thriller, but the victim and the con artist are the same person and he’s somehow topped it off with a reality television genre sheen. There’s a familiarity in Jasmine that we’ve seen time and again on one of those Real Housewives spin-offs or a dating show, except this time, I felt something for her as a person that I’ve never experienced while watching one of these shows. It’s one thing to be foolish, and something else entirely to suffer from incurable madness.
I guess that’s why they call it the blues. (PG-13) Grade: A
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