My, how the mighty fall in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," a dramedic character study about the eponymous diva played by a riveting Cate Blanchett. In the movie, opening today in limited release, we catch up with Jasmine after the behind-bars death of Hal (Alec Baldwin), her Ponzi-schemer husband, whose arrest begat a devastating government liquidation, leaving Jasmine with little more than the Chanel duds on her back and Louis Vuitton bags in her hand. As the once-pampered Manhattan housewife tells it, she was reduced from hosting parties in the Hamptons to—gasp!—a customer service job on Madison Avenue, selling shoes to the same women who munched on endive salad in her foyer. Having desperately fled to the home of her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco, the last stop on her route to rock bottom, Jasmine spills the worst of her post-Hal debacle back east. "Can you believe I had to live in Brooklyn?" she sobs on Ginger's shoulder, as if sharing a zip code with the likes of Hannah Horvath, alter ego of "Girls" star Lena Dunham, is as abysmal as it gets.
Reportedly inspired by a story Allen heard from his wife about a friend of a friend who endured a Ruth Madoff-esque experience, "Blue Jasmine" is very much a chronicle of a 1-Percenter's shattering descent, which, for the average viewer, has a distinctly sinful sweetness. But while Jasmine may be a willfully ignorant riff on Carmela Soprano, averting her eyes from her husband's misdeeds to enjoy the riches they yield, the character has even more in common with the Hannah Horvaths of the world—certainly more than she'd ever care to admit.
"It's a very contemporary fable for the moment," Blanchett said earlier this week at a press conference in a Waldorf Astoria ballroom, a venue that'd suit Jasmine just fine. "That's the thing with Woody: He's not only keyed into the zeitgeist, and the epic nature of [the Madoff] catastrophe, but many stories like it. There are thousands of them—thousands of stories."
One such story is the increasingly popular plight of the American millenial, who, stereotypically, grew up in a world of promises, privilege, and higher education, only to have prospects stripped away in the wake of economic meltdown. The result? A generation of drifting malcontents with coping-skill deficits, who shudder when faced with grown-up challenges, and struggle greatly with accepting less than what they think they deserve. Take Dunham's Hannah, who initially ekes out a living as an unpaid intern leeching money off of her parents, all in the service of a near-hypothetical writing career she barely has the guts to pursue. Then there's Greta Gerwig's Frances in "Frances Ha," an apartment-hopping aspiring dancer who'd rather live in bohemian denial than, as suggested in a bit of tough love by her mentor, deign to take an office job while honing her craft.
These are the very self-imposed plagues of entitlement suffered by Jasmine, who, without any regard for the 9-to-5-ers in her presence, like grocery-bagger Ginger and her handyman boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), belittles "medial" employment like waiting tables and nursing. "I'd go nuts!" Jasmine snobbishly declares, insisting instead that she go back to school to become "something substantial," like an "interior decorator" or, most hilariously, an "anthropologist." The irony is that Jasmine is already going quite nuts, and a little medial work would almost certainly help her sanity and her tattered link to reality, just as it would benefit Hannah or Frances. Alas, even when she makes an attempt as a dentist's secretary, and meets an unfortunate road bump (one all but identical to the ass-grabbing habit of one of Hannah's bosses), Jasmine takes it as a sign to retreat, and to revert back to the only thing she knows how to do: Live inside a funded fantasy. Even her name is a frilly contrivance, as she changed it from Jeanette.
"There began the fiction," said Blanchett. "She set about creating a fantasy world, and inhabiting that idea of the princess."
Though each have a unique and startling freshness, Jasmine and Hannah are hardly the foremost antiheroines to cover this terrain. And while Blanchett is quick to give ample credit to Allen, whose "genius," she says, and "brilliance as a dramatist" helped cement the material's far-reaching resonance, it's she who apparently focused most on tracing the archetype to its classic roots. The actress and her director never discussed her celebrated turn on stage as the like-minded Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," but Blanchett surely used Blanche for inspiration.