It’s been a considerably long amount of time since Woody Allen has really built an entire film around a single female character and a singularly incredible performance. While Blue Jasmine certainly retains a lot of the ensemble elements that have marked his more recent features, it does away with a lot of the nostalgia and good feelings in favour of a woman past the verge of a nervous breakdown. Thanks to a flawless leading performance from Cate Blanchett that will be talked of for decades to come and some of the most emotionally heavy material Allen has tackled in years, one would have to go back to the early 1990s to find an Allen film that feels this vital. That’s not to say that he hasn’t made some entertaining films in the interim, but none as assured and pointed as this one.
Blanchett plays Jeanette, a woman who rechristened herself as Jasmine when she decided she wanted to move beyond her background as an adopted orphan and play beyond her social status. Saying that Jasmine is in rough shape when the movie starts is an understatement. She’s grieving the loss of her husband (Alec Baldwin), living in the aftermath of his financial indiscretion that swindled people out of a lot of money, trying to come to terms with her own son not wanting to see her again, and for the first time in years trying to reacquaint herself with how people actually live on meagre means. It’s such a stress for her that she’s prone to vivid flashbacks, outbursts of anger and crying, and she often loses time; muttering to herself like she’s reliving a moment from traumas past.
Her former Hampton socialite and big business friends have all abandoned her. As a last possible option, she moves to San Francisco to be with her also adopted sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). It’s amazingly selfless that Ginger never turned her back on Jasmine since it was her prodding and her ex-husband’s dealings that led to the dissolution of her first marriage. Ginger has started dating again, but her new man Chili (Bobby Cannavale) knows their past and feels constantly put out and suspicious. Constantly pushing her sister to get a job, Ginger wants to help Jasmine, but her own life suffers as a result of a still present culture clash. Jasmine has dreams of going to back to school and becoming a designer, but without taking another day job that would allow her to pay for it. Chili’s concern is that Jasmine’s staying with Ginger will be far more than temporary, leading to a further delay in the couple starting a new life together under the same roof.
A story about accepting a major and crushing life change grafted onto a Tennessee Williams styled story, Allen goes surprisingly deep with his focus and faith in Blanchett’s work. He seems to be staying out of his own way as a director, but he’s firing on all cylinders as a writer. Flashing back and forth between Jasmine’s old life and her struggles to readjust to something more universally normal, not only is the structure of the film a novel departure from his most recent work, but it requires a significant amount of fluidity and focus from a filmmaker who up to this point had been coasting largely on nostalgia and silliness alone (with a scant few exceptions, of course).
It’s also a lot more personally rooted than Allen’s more recent “man born in the wrong era” routine. It’s very much of the here and now despite the obvious literary inspirations. It’s somewhat telling that his first film to come back briefly to New York casts the city as a villainous spectre that haunts the memories of the main character. Everything Jasmine remembers about the city before finally being faced to deal with her anxieties head on are actually happy memories at first: the ones that people like to look back on in hindsight after learning things weren’t alright in the first place. Even though the more eccentric working class types of San Francisco are sometimes overpowering to Jasmine, it’s because she’s already overpowered herself and doesn’t seem capable of being a part of an actually loving and welcoming community again. In a way, it’s almost like Allen escaping his own past because he has finally realized it hurt him more than it helped in the long run. And despite Allen’s usual Jewish bent, the film’s humour and drama come steeped in an incredible amount of guilt and sadness that feels organic and unforced.
That Woody decides to use a female as his surrogate this time out is also quite telling, since it hints at someone still learning life lessons well into his 70s. He also hasn’t had a close collaborator as good as Blanchett since Diane Keaton. Woody certainly gives her the material, but there’s something about her performance here that’s positively transformative. Jasmine constantly looks down up those around her – including her working class by choice and by fate sister – with an utmost degree of disdain, and yet still she pleads for help and forgiveness from the only support system she has left.
It’s extremely hard to play someone who has lost everything almost overnight without creating a comedic caricature out of it. To portray the same person as grief stricken and given to fits of madness and rage becomes even harder. With every nervous twitch and sudden thousand yard stare, Blanchett brings an added element of tragedy that simply can’t be written or directed. There’s something incredibly instinctual and raw about her performance that she almost rewrites the film around her in her own image. It’s a harrowing portrait of crippling anxiety that Allen could only previously hint at through his comedy made painfully poignant through one of the best performances anyone has ever given him.
Not that the rest of the cast are slouches, either, since there isn’t a weak link to be found. Hawkins, of course, deserves the lion’s share of the credit since really half of the story technically involves her character trying to deal with the love she still has for her sister and how it runs afoul of everyone around her and nearly destroys her own personal life. Ginger is meek, but not stupid; trusting, but not suspicious. She’s been burned before, and while others around her won’t suffer her indiscretions and idiosyncrasies lightly, she seems to be the only person selfless enough to know that she would want someone to be just as kind to her if the same things were to befall her own life.
Ginger has three men in her life: her ex-husband and father of her children Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), her current fiancée Chili, and a speaker installation expert (Louis C.K.) that she starts a brief flirtation with. Each represents a seemingly different part of Ginger’s psyche, and each actor brings a different sort of energy to the role (helped by the fact that none of them are ever in the same scenes together).
Clay plays a perfectly nice guy who saw his dreams ruined by Jasmine and her husband, but he’s unable to let go of the pain associated with the loss of his own nest egg. He’s gruff and sad, unsure of what exactly would make him feel better, and it’s clearly a nice career rebound for Dice after years of obscurity. One has to remember that the whole Diceman gig was always a gimmick, and one that paid the bills for him for a long, long time. Here, he’s looks grateful to have the chance to stretch out and play something with a bit more balance and far less bluster.
Cannavale gets to play what might be the most difficult role next to Jasmine, and he delivers his career best work. Chili is a complete buffoon that’s almost out of place with his surroundings. He gets the bulk of the comedic sequences, but he also has a palpable anger and a natural distrust of everyone around him that makes him a loose cannon. He wants to like Jasmine, but not only does he not have any evidence to suggest Jasmine is loveable, but she also treats him like an idiot. Cannavale goes a little more over the top than one might expect given the tone of the film around him, but the questions he asks of Jasmine and her motivations are so pointed and fearful that he becomes a truly humane creation.
C.K. might get the shortest end of the stick, but he’s no less effective. Playing another famous Allen archetype – the nice guy the woman should probably be with in the first place – he’s allowed to bring his own take on the part rather than taking direct marching orders from Allen as to how it should be played. Anyone who has seen Louie knows what C.K. can bring to a production, and he does similar work here.
Similarly, Jasmine also has three men representing the different stages of her life, and they’re also played by actors up to the task, albeit these roles aren’t as interesting as those written to be around Ginger. As the ghost haunting Jasmine, Baldwin has the smooth talking, secretly cretinous act down pat. Michael Stuhlbarg appears as a dentist Jasmine begrudgingly takes a job with. He has a crush on clearly damaged goods and he can’t seem to tactfully articulate his feelings to the very clearly uncomfortable woman he hired as an employee. Finally, Peter Sarsgaard shows up as a perfectly nice rich guy who Jasmine lies to in order to get back into dating. He’s fine, but the role is meant to be as bland and inoffensive as possible by design, leaving him with fairly little to do.
Definitely Allen’s most intriguing and emotionally resonant film in decades, Blue Jasmine follows on the promise of one last truly excellent film from one of the most interesting American filmmakers still working. It’s not just a “fun” movie made so Allen can explore new locations and genres, but a forceful one made with an actual point to it beyond the artifice of just making a good movie. If he ever produces anything this good ever again (and let’s face it, he is getting on in years), we will all be extremely lucky.