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‘Blue Jasmine’: Woody Allen’s Most Successfully Tragic Yet Witty Film

'Blue Jasmine': Woody Allen's Most Successfully Tragic Yet Witty Film

Witty about social pretensions, eloquently moving about
failure and loss, acerbic about family relations — Blue Jasmine feels like a rich destination Woody Allen has been
heading toward for years. It’s as if the sibling drama of Interiors were handled (more successfully) with credibility and humor,
and  Manhattan‘s
skewering observations about money and class given tragic weight, in a film
that elicits full, grounded performances from actors as predictably good as
Cate Blanchett, as head-spinning as Andrew Dice Clay.

Blanchett is Jasmine, the former wife of a Park Avenue
mogul whose wealth was built on fraud. She arrives, bankrupt in Hermes and
Chanel, to stay with her working-class sister in San Francisco.  

Sally Hawkins is wonderfully down-to-earth as Ginger, the
sister who kindly but commonsensically wonders how Jasmine flew first class if
she’s dead broke.  Blanchett instantly
allows us to see that Jasmine is not a diva about her situation; she’s  deluded.  

Allen has based the plot very loosely on A Streetcar Named Desire (which
Blanchett has played as a jittery Blanche). As in Tennessee Williams’ play, we
have an emotionally fragile, delicate flower of a heroine, whose past slowly
blossoms into view, forced to live with her working class sister and her
brutish man. But Streetcar is more
pentimento than intrusion here. Allen’s most inspired twist was to turn
the Southern belle into Jasmine, a lady who gave dinner parties in a
 world of unearned privilege  — and contemporary resonance.

He could have done more to explain the extreme distance
between the sisters in class and social poise. Ginger’s claim that their
adopted mother liked Jasmine best isn’t nearly enough, although the fact that
Jasmine changed her name from too-ordinary Jeanette hints at her romanticized
reinvention of herself. That question doesn’t get in the film’s way, though, as
the sisters struggle toward the future, while interspersed flashbacks show us
their recent pasts.

In the lush New York flashbacks we see Jasmine’s  husband, Hal, played by Alec Baldwin as
another of his smooth operators, whose crookedness Jasmine chooses not to
notice. There is Ginger and her former husband, gauche but honest Augie, played
by Andrew Dice Clay without a trace of his bullying stand-up act. When Augie
and Ginger visit Jasmine and Hal, the rich couple drips condescension; we skirm
more than anyone on screen.

But Ginger gives her sister a home when she needs it in San
Francisco, and listens when Jasmine pushes her to trade up from her thuggish
fiance, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine has a point:  the first requirement for a good boyfriend is not tearing your phone out of the wall
(I’d say not being named Chili is a close second). That doesn’t mean Ginger has
the confidence or luck to make that leap.  

 The present day scenes are  loaded with terrific actors in smaller roles. Peter
Sarsgaard plays a diplomat who might be the answer to Jasmine’s latest dreams. Louis
C.K. is  Al, who might be Ginger’s step up
from Chili. And Michael Stuhlbarg adds some queasy comedy as a dentist who
makes a clumsy pass at Jasmine.

But all those flashbacks are leading toward a revelation
about how Jasmine’s fortunes changed. When it lands, instead of feeling strained
as so many movie surprises can, it falls into places as gracefully and
naturally, with as much heart-breaking truth and guilt, as anything Allen has
written. Blanchett is dazzling in the way she keeps Jasmine’s secrets — after
all, Jasmine herself prefers to forget them — and eventually lets us feel
their  terrible, destructive force. 

Allen may have made some clunkers in the past decade (that Larry
David throwaway with the forgettable title, Whatever
). But along with Vicky Cristina
and Midnight in Paris, Blue
is major work of his most recent phase. With three vastly different
styles, these mature films match the accomplishment of his first Annie Hall-era brilliance.   

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