If you’ve heard of this film, you’ve likely already formed an opinion about whether or not you’re going to see it, but if you’re even a little bit unsure — Cate Blanchett turns in one of the performances of a lifetime, something so solid and remarkable that you lose yourself in watching her. Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s best film in years, and certainly his best film since Match Point. And possibly Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which I forget about all the time. As long as you like your Allen coherent and interesting, you’re going to do fine with this one. A true delight for the filmgoer exhausted by Summer’s offerings.
Told half in flashbacks to a better life, and half in the dowdy present, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a woman who was once very wealthy, but whose husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin) lost their money in fraudulent schemes. After losing it all, Jasmine finds herself forced out of her glamorous New York City lifestyle and into the lower middle class arms of her adopted sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) living in San Francisco. Jasmine and Ginger are worlds apart in every respect, but Ginger does her best to try and help her sister acclimate to her new circumstances, but Jasmine is doing her best, which isn’t very much at all. Jasmine is kind of a nightmare overall, the sort of woman who has spent a life hosting dinner parties and attending charity functions, but who simply isn’t built for the kind of life where one works for a living. She detests everything about Ginger’s contented existence, from her rowdy boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) to her small apartment and job as a grocery clerk. To top it all off, Jasmine is losing it, slowly but surely drinking, lying and medicating her way into a muddled half-life, caught between the past and the present, hysterical and pitiable.
Cate Blanchett’s performance is stunning, losing herself entirely in the role of the beautiful, uptight Jasmine. Where it might be easy to play her as all naiveté and hapless victim of circumstance, Blanchett has taken the Jasmine prism and shone a light through every varied nuance of her person. No one can be self-absorbed all the time, certainly, but Jasmine is in crisis, in the midst of a tragedy and can’t quite think clearly. If there’s anything Woody Allen likes, it’s a slightly ridiculous, beautiful woman who is fairly certain she can make her own way in the world (whether or not that’s true) and Blanchett delivers. Alec Baldwin is delightful as the big spender and big fraud who remains the focus of Jasmine’s thoughts. Almost as lovely is Sally Hawkins, playing the long-suffering, much maligned and put-upon Ginger with all her own quirks and troubles laid on.
The details are what work best here amidst slightly theatrical staging, and the flashback plot device which keeps things from becoming too monotonous in the present. There’s plenty of people talking over one another, around one another, and especially enjoyable are the interactions between the two sisters. Ginger admires Jasmine, and still seeks her approval, although she has yet to learn the lesson of the younger sister, which is that nothing will ever be quite good enough. Where Jasmine is all gilt edges and Hampton’s poolside lunches, Ginger has seen the harder side of life and has fewer delusions about what awaits her. Jasmine’s innate demands for special treatment comes as naturally to her as talking, in fact she never even realizes the majority of ways in which she inconveniences others. Ginger is used to settling, and can accept the limitations of the world, but for Jasmine, the world isn’t allowed to disappoint her because there simply must be something someone can do.
While the film is by no means a perfect movie, it is quite good, actually very funny at times, and, as I said, Allen’s best film in years. Still, one wonders what the takeaway is. Woody Allen seems to be obsessively meditating on the ability of other people to disappoint us, and it’s a bit hard to find someone to root for in this quirky drama. While it’s a lot of fun to watch Jasmine flop about as a fish out of water, it’s difficult to feel bad for the extremely wealthy brought low. (Still, against my better judgement, Blanchett manages to make me feel for her, bringing the realism of a 40something housewife with no discernible skills into sharp focus.) Allen’s careful decision to alter the kilter of his standard rich, white New York City dweller may mean that he too is tired of the comfort and safety of wealth.
It is only when we are left without our considerable resources that we begin to understand what we’ve been given, but Jasmine can’t seem to learn from her experiences, and perhaps that is the message. Things never change, people never change and though we may move thousands of miles away from our former lives, we can never outrun the real problem in any given situation: ourselves.
In the name of journalistic integrity, I should mention that my friend Ali Fedotowsky has a role in the movie. It’s not a very big role but I was very happy for her none the less. No, it didn’t bias me one way or another.