One could argue that those two things are the basis for any good film. Fair point. But for Allen, the strengths of these traits make or break him. Nearly all of his films are exceptionally cast, yet without a good story, we watch extremely talented actors flounder through Allen’s distinct world. Think To Rome with Love and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, to name a few recent ones.
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is Woody Allen’s favorite type of woman: complex, elitist, vapid, and morose. When Jasmine is up – when she has a rich husband, limitless wealth, and infinite time – she’s a ball of joy. She spends her days shopping and enjoying lavish lunches, and her nights entertaining guests, all with a smile on her face. But when she’s down – after her husband, wealth, time and energy are inexplicably taken away – she’s a complete monster. A vile, disgusting, entitled being who speaks too frankly and drinks too frequently. It’s a complicated role, one of the most despicable and detailed characters Allen has ever penned, and Blanchett plays it perfectly. There isn’t a challenge unmet or a note improperly spoken.
When we meet Jasmine, she is reluctantly flying from New York to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine and Ginger aren’t close, but our troubled title character has nowhere else to go. Through well-placed flashbacks, we meet Jasmine at a different time. A time before her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin) had been pinched for various illegal financial dealings. A time before Jasmine lost everything. After suffering a public mental breakdown, Jasmine is forced to move in with Ginger and live life as a common person. A person who has to work, a person who has to cook and clean, a person who has to live without a net.
And that’s essentially how Blue Jasmine goes. Cutting back and forth between a previous time of carefree wealth, and a current time of utter dread. We watch Jasmine needlessly intrude on Ginger’s relationship with Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a white collar worker with a quick temper. We witness her troubles at work, and her desperate, shameful search for another impossibly wealthy suitor. There are fights, tantrums and rants at almost every corner, all written to excellence and acted flawlessly.
Woody Allen can cast whomever he wants in any of his films. That’s how eager all actors are to work with him. And with a story as strong as Blue Jasmine’s, I’m frankly surprised he took so many casting risks here. Comedian Andrew Dice Clay (who I’ve never seen act in a narrative film) is utterly superb as Ginger’s ex husband, Augie. He’s a working stiff who knows he’s a working stiff, but he’s got a heart of pure, honest gold. I respect the hell out of Allen for giving Clay a shot here. Louis C.K. is another comedian I’ve never seen act outside of his own material, but, as a potential new love interest for Ginger, proves he can fit well into Allen’s world.
As Chili, Bobby Cannavale delivers his strongest performance since The Station Agent, proving that he deserves meatier roles in general. Peter Sarsgaard (as a man who falls under Jasmine’s spell) carefully plays rich entitlement without the entitlement, while Baldwin plays a smug bastard in that perfect Alec Baldwin way. And while the film more or less rests on Blanchett’s shoulders, specific praise needs to be issued to Sally Hawkins. Ginger is a woman trying to keep it all together, and Hawkins plays to her desperation so convincingly that she deserves a seat next to Blanchett at the next Oscar ceremony, albeit for different categories.
Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen getting it right. It proves that the man still has the confidence and conviction to make stellar films. I’m not sure if Blue Jasmine is a drama that welcomes a laugh, or a comedy that isn’t afraid to bleed. Either way, Blue Jasmine will be remember as one of the great films of Woody Allen’s late career.
Blanchett and Hawkins: A+, the film: A-