Right on cue, the summer yields yet another Woody Allen movie—only this time its not “just another Woody Allen movie.” Leaning heavily on A Streetcar Named Desire and propelled by the sheer force of the central performance by Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine is (almost) free of shtick and full of substance.
Like To Rome with Love, the film begins in the first-class cabin of an airplane. Decked out in her wealthy WASP uniform—a white Chanel blazer complete with gold buttons and a string of pearls—Jasmine (Blanchett) can’t stop herself from blathering about the details of her personal life to the hapless woman seated next to her. It’s economical exposition at its finest: somewhere between New York and San Francisco we learn that Jasmine dropped out of college to marry her dashing and extraordinarily rich husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), and seemingly went on to lead a charmed life.
But once we’re back on solid ground, the extent to which Jasmine’s situation remains completely up in the air becomes apparent. As it turns out, Prince Charming was a smooth-talking crook who cheated a lot of people out of a lot of money—including Jasmine’s adopted sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and Ginger’s blue-collar ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay). Suddenly divorced, homeless, penniless, and with no career to fall back on, Jasmine arrives to stay indefinitely at Ginger’s modest San Francisco apartment much to the chagrin of her beefy beau, Chili (Bobby Cannavale).
Sipping martinis with a twist of lemon while Chili swigs beer out of the bottle, Jasmine is clearly a fish out of water in this working-class environment. She makes no attempt to hide her disapproval of Ginger’s lifestyle, dragging her sister to an upscale party where they both meet promising new prospects. Ginger shares a dance with the sweet and unassuming Al (Louis C.K.), while Jasmine impresses a well-bred diplomat in crisp linens (Peter Sarsgaard).
Always a master with apartment interiors, Allen makes the most of Ginger’s humble abode. Despite the intimacy of the shared space, the camera movements stress the fact that the two sisters lead irreconcilably separate lives, and though the film begins as a comedy of manners, it quickly dips into surprisingly dark territory. The pharmaceutical name-dropping that’s usually used to comedic effect in Allen’s films has rather serious implications here, as Blanchett, wielding a stiff cocktail in one hand and a bottle of anti-anxiety pills in the other, gives her character a skillful shove from neurotic towards psychotic. Her memory-induced panic attacks give a psychological basis to the film’s flashback structure, which, though cumbersome at times, allows the story to unfold in two places at once: in the San Francisco present, and in the New York and Hamptons of Jasmine’s star-crossed past. As detail upon detail is revealed about Jasmine’s fall from grace, her high-class poise begins to betray deep cracks.
Channeling Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois, Blanchett steals the film. With intense far-away eyes (often smudged with running eye makeup), she’s capable of infusing even the most comedic moments with palpable tension. Although the balance between comedy and drama wavers somewhat unevenly throughout, the players—both lead and supporting—are all strong enough to carry it off.
Allen is notorious for his laissez-faire approach when it comes to actors, and his ensemble pieces tend to suffer from a scattered lack of cohesion, but Blue Jasmine is comparatively contained. Although her accent slips at times, the always memorable Hawkins manages to convey a happy-go-lucky naiveté and world-weary wisdom at once while Cannavale balances Stanley Kowalski–style rage with unpolished sweetness. Andrew Dice Clay is well cast as the brusque Augie—the only character in the film who consistently says it like it is—and Baldwin plays his philandering financier with effortless ease. For their small parts, Sarsgaard and Louis C.K. fit seamlessly into Allen’s milieu as yuppie charmer and bumbling horn dog, respectively (even if the latter doesn’t get as much screen time as fans might hope).
Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography doesn’t disappoint, showcasing mountainous San Francisco vistas and Hampton country homes in equal measure. Ending on an ambiguous down beat, the film leaves much to ponder beyond its final frame, making Blue Jasmine Allen’s weightiest film in years.