That familiar font, white on black. An old jazz standard plays. A smile cracks your lips, and you settle in. It’s a new Woody Allen picture. His latest finds Cate Blanchett playing Jasmine (née Jeanette,) a woman who once latched firmly onto a life of plenty as the wife of a filthy rich investor, Hal (Alec Baldwin.) For years she basked comfortably in the swimming pools and dinner parties of the bourgeoisie, but after things with Hal went south, both personally and professionally, Jasmine’s life fell to pieces, and the separation came with some severe personal and psychological repercussions. We meet her as she arrives in San Francisco, frazzled and medicated, to stay with her sister, Ginger, a woman of more modest means.
Woody’s attempt to depict the working-class home of Ginger, a single mom and grocery clerk with two kids, is laughable, even if we factor in a helluva alimony payment. But Jasmine is of course distraught in the surroundings and, even as she makes a seemingly good-faith attempt to put her life back together, she finds her past creeping in around her all the time.
Allen gives the gift of a bona fide Tarantino-style career revival to Andrew Dice Clay, who plays the gruff-and-humble blue collar ex-husband of Jasmine’s sister, who lost a hefty sum of invested money while still married to Ginger after Hal’s schemes were finally found out. Clay is terrific in the brief role, very much in his element and able to impart both east coast swagger and, when needed, genuine melancholy. Also excellent is Bobby Cannavale, cast as usual as an oafish tough guy—a mechanic and Ginger’s new fiancé. But Louis CK is used less interestingly, as a romantic interloper who briefly occupies Ginger’s fancy.
Much heralded already is Blanchett’s performance, and what else would we expect from her? Among many other good reasons, she is the best reason to love the film. But the character also presents a bit of a problem in that, apart from her relationship with Ginger, we have little sense of her as a person before Hal and his millions swept her off her feet. The film follows her to the end, but in a way, as it observes her struggling and grasping at straws, it also leaves her in the lurch.
Less showy but of no less consequence to the film’s success is Sally Hawkins as Ginger, Jasmine’s sister (it is explained that they were adopted into the same family.) Ginger is the flipside to the question the film seems to be asking–how do we deal with the problem of money? Jasmine is thrust out of the good life, but her mind struggles to play catch-up. Ginger still resents Hal blowing her big shot at financial gain, but seems otherwise happy. Jasmine was at home in the lofty dinner parties and European excursions of her past. Ginger has never traveled, and insists that Jasmine got the “good genes” in the family (a puzzling remark given that we’re meant to believe both were adopted.) The duality is clear, but the film’s ending makes painfully, heartbreakingly obvious whose side Allen is on.
Though he conspicuously wraps them in the familiar trappings of his hyper-verbal characters, the themes at play in Blue Jasmine are darker than the depths of San Francisco Bay. We might wonder if Woody is pawing mawkishly at some kind of penance for the frequent preoccupation with the upper crust he shows in his films, by showing the dark, insipid side of financial success at its worst. And it’s very easy to read the film as a cut-and-dried reaction to the Bernie Madoff scandal. Admittedly though, it’s much less interesting to try to pick apart Allen’s psyche than to watch the film, which makes quick work of that old Woody magic—whipping up a compelling cast of characters and putting events in motion to complicate their lives.
Though Blue Jasmine sometimes feels like it has its ideas all over the place, the through-lines of the story connect pretty smoothly, even as we often struggle to understand the characters’ motivations. A strange mélange of funny and very, very sad, the film awkwardly makes room for comic touches as it slowly builds tension and dread, and we watch Jasmine try to fight her way through her trauma, with pills and alcohol and all the rest. Perhaps unfortunately, Allen stops just short of depicting photo-real mental illness and chemical dependency, which some may see as a cop-out. In fact, the beats might lead you to believe that Allen is OK if you laugh at Jasmine’s coping mechanisms. Plenty of people in the theater will. But anyone at all in tune with the reality of mental struggles or depression will be wincing instead.
More and more it feels like Woody is less able (or less interested) in separating his “funny” and “serious” films, and it’s as though he feels obliged to include a smattering of laughs even as he lays the groundwork for a truly heartbreaking story. As a result, the film can (perhaps intentionally) occasionally feel as flighty and unhinged as Jasmine herself.
But at its best, Blue Jasmine has some interesting ideas about the nature of happiness, and how money plays into it. That no matter how happy you are or aren’t, part of you may still long for something else. But those who actually grab that brass ring, even for a time, may one day wish they hadn’t. As usual with Woody, the devotees will overlook the flaws, detractors will deride, and few will attempt to parse it beyond the parking lot. But Blue Jasmine seems an unusually rich and serious affair, its casual Woody-ness undercutting and obscuring some intense ideas, and a vivid, memorable performance by Blanchett that elevates them greatly.