Like clockwork, the prodigious workaholic Woody Allen releases a movie each year. And every 12 months, there is the temptation to compare Allen’s latest with his past works, given that they tend to have formed a 31 flavors-like distinction over the last five decades. There’s the more recent trend towards to the romantic (“Midnight In Paris”) and globe-trotting (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), familiar existential comedic worries (“Whatever Works”), and even moral-dilemma-led thrillers ("Match Point," "Cassandra's Dream") but a recent theme emerging of late is an introspective examination at the past and regret also evinced in “To Rome with Love.” That motif is also explored in “Blue Jasmine,” Allen’s latest picture which possesses a script that is at times clunky and uneven, but features an outstanding firecracker turn from Cate Blanchett that has “Oscar-worthy” written all over it in flames.
In many ways, “Blue Jasmine” just can’t hope to compete with Blanchett, who feels like she is more deeply committed than the rest of the movie that veers from broad-ish, slight comedy to bleak, depressing drama and back again. It’s part raw and ugly character study, part ensemble comedy, but it’s that first element that is so striking, bold and unnerving, while the latter element is sometimes amusing, but familiar. “She's Cate Blanchett, what can you do? You hire her and get out of the way," Allen said in a recent interview and it’s with this statement one starts to believe in the hands of another actress, “Blue Jasmine,” could have been a much lighter, breezier affair overall (in the same interview Blanchett suggests she was given little direction and left to her own devices, which is Allen's modus operandi).
Blanchett stars as Jasmine (formerly Jannette), a mentally frayed former socialite at the end of her tether as life has pulled out the rug from under her, and she's landed on her backside with a unforgiving thud. Trying to recover from a massive life crisis -- stemming from her crooked, cheating investment broker husband Hal (Alec Baldwin playing a white collar criminal seemingly modelled after Bernie Madoff) who essentially ruined her life -- she’s gone from elite privilege to absolute rock bottom. Having let Hal sweep her off her feet and bathe her in riches, she is left without real world skills, education and is penniless. Mentally unmoored, Jasmine flees to San Francisco to temporarily live with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
A new life begins, full of rude awakenings, but the past is always with the unstable Jasmine, presented via numerous flashbacks often triggered by a in-the-moment emotional responses. Her past includes Hal, her unfaithful husband and Danny (Alden Ehrenreich), Hal's son from a previous marriage who drops out of Harvard in shame when his father is jailed and revealed to be a financial scam artist who has ruined several lives with his scheming ways. And those touched by the misfortune are not that twice removed, including Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), suckered into putting their one ticket to happiness (literally a winning lottery ticket) into one of Hal’s monetary scams. Thus Ginger and Jasmine have deep a fractured history, but the younger, more happy-go-lucky sibling never resents the elder, formerly impossibly-wealthy relation, for causing this calamity.
“Blue Jasmine” is then essentially bifurcated into two narratives: the present which includes Ginger’s new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), his buddy Eddie (Max Casella) and new paramour Al (Louis C.K) and the past which slowly reveals over time how Hal lost their fortune. A woman in the midst of a nervous breakdown, as Jasmine transports herself back to her various mistakes, what comes to the fore is her tendency to look the other way whenever something unpleasant arises. To help cope with remaining blind and delusional, Jasmine turns to alcohol and by the time she’s reached San Francisco she’s a raging alcoholic and pill popper.
And class is also deeply on the film’s mind. Jasmine comes from wealth and there’s a major dichotomy between her and her sister who comes from blue-collar, arguably low-class means. In a parallel universe, there’s a funnier version of “Blue Jasmine” out there. But with Cate Blanchett at the helm of this character, “Blue Jasmine” is raw-nerve stuff, hard-to-watch and aching with throbbing emotional pain that is all too real. Watching Blanchett’s entitled character, accustomed to wealth and affluence having to struggle as a receptionist for a libidinous dentist (played with creepy skeevyness by Michael Stuhlbarg) is near excruciating, and Jasmine’s life, as rendered by Blanchett so amazingly, is utterly agonizing. Further brilliant is the deep humanity that Blanchett envelopes into what is otherwise a wretched, narcissistic character that got everything she deserved in life. Jasmine is a horrible person, as demonstrated by every condescending interaction she has with every character she meets, but in Blanchett’s hand she is a wounded flower that you can’t help with empathize with even as abhorrent as her behavior often is. And to call Blanchett simply another “neurotic” Woody Allen character is a disservice to how brutally collapsed she is emotionally and psychically.
As two different movies go, (the Jasmine past and the Jasmine present), “Blue Jasmine” isn’t all that jarring and it’s flashback structure, while a crutch, isn’t as inelegant as one would think. But the script is also hurried, and a few key scenes that could use a bit more texture and nuance feel frustratingly underwritten. A few late act contrivances with Ginger’s character and the blossoming relationship with her new beau Al, feel like an afterthought. And that's a damn shame. Because as uneven as “Blue Jasmine” is at times -- how it hammers home its themes too often (yes, Jasmine is ignorant, yes, Ginger has a tendency to date only losers), how it relies too much on flashbacks and how hurried plot contrivances mar an otherwise solid story -- it should be said the supporting cast is also outstanding. All of the supporting players, including Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight, a affluent diplomat charmed by Jasmine’s lies about still living within the same caste, are incredible, well-rounded individuals, even when the script betrays them (Bobby Cannavale as Ginger’s jealous auto-mechanic boyfriend and Andrew Dice Clay as her graying, sad ex-husband are particularly great and share the support MVP trophies).
Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who shot the luminous “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” also does a beautiful job here, making ‘Jasmine’ look luxurious where it needs to and quaint and unremarkable, but never oppressive, in the scenes involving Ginger's humble abode. “Blue Jasmine” has some interesting things to say about class, wealth and tragedy (though some of them being superficial and one-dimensional), but it’s sharpest, most cutting salvos are looking straight at the ugly conditions of the human heart, our lies, compartmentalized delusions, and desperate coping methods. In this manner, “Blue Jasmine” vaguely resembles “Husbands & Wives,” but certainly filtered through Allen’s recent tendency to sift through and examine past heartaches and contrition. It’s unclear, and perhaps doubtful, if the deeply flawed Jasmine ever learns from her mistakes, but in her various, sometimes heartbreaking stumbles to find balance underneath her feet, an all-too-human and relatable human in distress is revealed. She’s a difficult, incorrigible woman to the very end, but one who still bleeds a need for compassion and understanding.
“Blue Jasmine” [B+], Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” [A+]