As most audiences know, Woody Allen tends to operate in alternating modes of comedy and drama, rarely allowing the two extremes to intersect. Now in his late seventies, Allen is still most frequently known as a funnyman, so that whenever he shifts modes it throws people off: The dark noir “Match Point” was considered a change of pace for the director even though he had explored similar turf in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and first went bleak way back in 1978 with “Interiors.” In “Blue Jasmine,” however, Allen has achieved a fusion of two sensibilities that resembles one mode of storytelling but plays like a different one altogether.
Carried by Cate Blanchett in a deservedly hyped powerhouse turn, “Blue Jasmine” features the actress as the spoiled housewife of a wealthy Madoff-like schemer (Alec Baldwin) who commits suicide in prison. Left with nothing, she crashes with her estranged sister in San Francisco (Sally Hawkins) while rambling about potential ways of putting her life back together. Revealed in a series of opening shots chatting aimlessly about her woes to a shocked passenger on her flight to San Francisco, Jasmine sounds like yet another fast-talking avatar for Allen’s voice. Within minutes, she has unleashed rants about her adopted sister and both of their ex-husbands, her lack of trust for doctors and managed to quote Horace Greeley. Walking away from Jasmine, her fellow passenger laments, “she couldn’t stop babbling about her life.”
So it goes with Allen’s infinitely self-conscious creations, but “Blue Jasmine” takes that mold to a more frantic extreme. On the surface, it has all the hallmarks of an Allen comedy: the classic jazz underscoring virtually every scene, the speedy dialogue, and insular references to posh Manhattan lifestyles. However, Allen frames these ingredients with an ironic twist. Jasmine is the sort of character who once inhabited the makings of a cheery Allen comedy about the lifestyles of the rich and famous before her world crashed down. In her past as a trophy wife, which Allen slowly explores in a series of flashbacks running parallel to the contemporary events, Jasmine exists in a bubble of sunny bliss that forms a startling contrast to her current damaged state.
Watching these two experiences unfold simultaneously leads to one of the more intriguing storytelling devices Allen has used in quite some time. As a colleague pointed out to me, the approach echoes Allen’s lesser “Melinda and Melinda,” where a group of playwrights contemplate the prospects of telling the same story as both comedy and drama. While in that case the gimmick was a distraction, in “Blue Jasmine” the dramatic sensibility criticizes expectations of buoyant wit. Naturally, Allen turns to jazz for a key ingredient that percolates throughout the narrative. Jasmine routinely goes back to the song “Blue Moon,” as it reminds her of her ill-fated courtship. “I used to know the words,” she sighs. “Now they’re a jumble.” One could apply the same description to this tantalizing recalibrating of previous Allen movies into a less predictable whole.
Still, Allen’s increasingly anachronistic dialogue and largely unadventurous style remain a troublesome distraction. More than anything else, “Blue Jasmine” is driven by Blanchett, the movie’s true auteur. “You hire her and get out of the way,” Allen said in a widely circulated interview, although he’s actually done the opposite: Constantly framing her in extreme close-ups, he places her skill under the microscope, and Blanchett ably meets the challenge. Tasked with a throwaway line involving the ordering of a Stoli martini with a hint of lime, she conveys shocking depths of sadness with the slightest twitch in her eye. Later, conveying a panic attack during the scene that recounts the end of her marriage, she delivers some of the most intense physicality onscreen this year.
The rest of the cast is underutilized but just as strong. Hawkins capably buries her British accent with credible New York sass and a coy grin masking her own insecurities. Bobby Carnavale, playing her on-again-off-again boyfriend, lands a terrific freakout scene of his own. Peter Sarsgaard, Louis CK and Michael Stuhlbarg all crop up as potential suitors for both women, doing as much as they can with the limited material to wrestle with its ambiguous genre ingredients.
But “Blue Jasmine” belongs to Blanchett, who appears in almost every scene and frees it from the limitations of Allen’s style, pushing it to far sharper results than any of the more traditional movies, good and bad, that he’s churned out in the past dozen or so years. It’s the rare occasion where the filmmaker’s hands-off approach to directing performances pays off. Generally speaking, Allen attracts stars because his movies give actors a chance to experience living inside his self-made universe of neuroses. With few exceptions, his movies feel like different versions of the same old song. In “Blue Jasmine,” however, the instruments play themselves.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics releases “Blue Jasmine” next Friday. With Allen’s movie generally performing well in limited release, especially when they receive good reviews, the movie’s prospects are fairly strong. Buzz for Blanchett’s performance should elevate its profile during awards season.