Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” features a knock-down, drag-out
performance by Cate Blanchett as an emotionally frayed housewife who, through a
series of trying betrayals, is all washed up. The film itself doesn’t match
Blanchett’s stunning commitment — which is a pity, because in various ways it is
one of Allen’s more unusual works in years.
Jasmine (Blanchett) has come to live with her sister, Ginger
(Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco for a temporary amount of time while she gets
back on her feet. As we learn in flashback structure, Jasmine was previously
married to an exorbitantly wealthy businessman, Hal (Alec Baldwin), living a
life of elegant finery, before Hal’s fraudulent business schemes were found
out by the FBI and he was sent to prison, leaving Jasmine and Hal’s now
estranged son (Alden Ehrenreich) penniless.
Jasmine, a tall, regal blonde, and Ginger, a cute,
pint-sized brunette, are adopted sisters, which explains their physical
dissimilarities. Their class differences are explained by a turning point in
their adolescences: Ginger was less liked by their adoptive mother, and ran
away at an early age, eking out her own living.
In San Francisco, Ginger waffles back and forth between staying with her meathead fiance, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). And Jasmine must get a job and reluctantly takes a position in a dental office, as she harbors ambitions of
becoming an interior decorator. She eventually meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard),
a cultured diplomat living in the Bay Area, and through a few well-intentioned
fibs that balloon into full-on lies, convinces him she’s a successful interior
Oh, and one more thing: Jasmine is completely mentally
unstable. Blanchett gives a ferociously unvarnished performance, deftly
capturing the jittering, rambling, free-wheelingly self-absorbed fluctuations
of an entitled woman on the verge — hell, in the midst — of a nervous
breakdown. Jasmine’s M.O. is that she’ll begin a seemingly innocuous story —
necessarily about her past life — that at a certain point will take a hairpin
turn into the depths of her frittered subconscious.
She’ll be staring directly at her sister, but suddenly
speaking to a Manhattan housewife she used to know, trembling and thrusting her
voice into a low, lethal rumble. Like Blanche DuBois of “A Streetcar Named Desire” before her, she can move from lucidity to delusion at breakneck
speed, sometimes within a scene, sometimes between scenes, a vertiginous pace
that Blanchett keeps up believably.
The flashback structure of “Blue Jasmine” thus emerges both
as a storytelling technique but also as a glitch in Jasmine’s ability to cope
with the present. In that vein, this is a remarkably formally elegant film. Allen returns to cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who gave
“Vicky Christina Barcelona” its rich visual sense of warmth and intimacy.
“Blue Jasmine” also acts as a class critique, which is where
the film falters. Allen knows the Manhattan upper-class scene like the back of
his hand. The flashback sequences with Blanchett and Baldwin as beautiful
socialites have a sharp, observant authenticity. The scenes set in present-day
San Francisco, however, are oddly off.
Allen’s characterization of working-class people plays as mildly
exploitative. Ginger’s first husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), is a Jersey Boy
type, while Cannavale as her current boyfriend Chili is a more hyperbolic,
stereotypical version of Augie. Slicked hair, tight t-shirts, artificially tanned
skin and New Yawkuh accents for both of these characters reveal a lack of
imagination on Allen’s part but also a strangely off-kilter sense of place.
Both Augie and Chili are coded as East Coast — uncultured meatheads played for
laughs — yet they’re Bay Area residents.
Meanwhile, Ginger is a divorced single mother, and grocery
bagger, living in a sprawling San Francisco apartment. No matter how often Jasmine glares down her nose at her sister’s supposedly squalid abode, we aren’t
convinced that the bohemian-chic and spacious flat is the home of someone
struggling to make ends meet.
These aspects ultimately seem careless in a film that in
many ways is impressively dark and nuanced. In his later films, Allen struggles
with supporting roles. A lead character — such as Blanchett here — is fleshed
out, three-dimensional and often winningly rich with the signature neuroses and
insecurities that Allen has made a lifelong obsession. Yet smaller characters are tossed off and inconsistent — both the talented Michael Stuhlbarg and
Louis C.K. are given fairly thankless roles in the film — while observations
about cultural environments have a tourist-like superficiality.
Blanchett’s wonderfully unwieldy character in “Blue Jasmine”
has tasted the highs and lows of what life has to offer, and simmers with
volatile frustration and pathos. I can’t help but share a bit of her
frustration. Much of “Blue Jasmine” is very good — why must it be so uneven?
“Blue Jasmine” hits theaters July 26, via Sony Pictures Classics.