‘Blue Jasmine’: Cate Blanchett is the best thing to happen to Woody Allen in ages

A Woody Allen movie that I actually thought about after it was over — when was the last time that happened? Lately even his better ones tend to evaporate in memory a few hours after I’ve left the theater, and I doubt I retained anything from a trifle like last year’s When in Rome by the time I was on the sidewalk outside.

Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin as Ruth and Bernie, er, Jasmine and Hal. © Copyright Sony Pictures Classics.

Blue Jasmine tells the tragicomic story of Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, perfectly cast), the ex-wife of a former Wall Street master of the universe named Hal (Alec Baldwin). As seen in flashbacks, Hal and Jasmine were like younger, more glamorous versions of Bernie and Ruth Madoff; Hal’s high-stakes financial chicanery eventually got found out, the feds seized everything, Hal got sent to prison, and the newly broke Jasmine, lucky not to be indicted herself, suffered a nervous breakdown. The film opens with her arriving in San Francisco, where she’s seeking refuge with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a supermarket cashier, because she has nowhere left to go.

Chic, haughty Jasmine might find San Francisco’s Pacific Heights or Sea Cliff neighborhoods a tolerable substitute for the Hamptons, but Ginger’s walk-up apartment is on a nondescript stretch of Van Ness Avenue, south of Market Street. (When I lived in S.F. during the ’90s, the area was a realtor’s equivalent of no-man’s-land, marooned between SOMA and the Mission.) As Jasmine struggles to grasp her new living situation, her grande-dame hauteur, her pretensions and her reflexive snobbery are like a force field keeping the grime of South Van Ness at bay. She insists on standing on her dignity because she thinks that’s all she has left. But as we will see, her nervous breakdown is never far from the surface.

On the set: Cate Blanchett and unidentified extra. © Copyright Sony Pictures Classics.

Blue Jasmine isn’t free of the flaws of late, late Woody Allen: obvious, exposition-laden dialogue, staging that occasionally feels lackadaisical, and a blinkered cultural perspective. What lifts the film above the spate of later movies that would’ve been better off as comic sketches in the pages of The New Yorker — and pushes it toward Crimes and Misdemeanors or Husbands and Wives caliber — is the relative absence of cheap laughs, and the total absence of consolation. When we meet her Jasmine’s life has been shattered, and Allen doesn’t offer any tidy arc of redemption here.

Most of all, the film stands out among Allen’s work for being centered around a grand, theatrical lead performance that’s exceptionally satisfying to watch. At various moments Jasmine might provoke exasperation, amusement, disbelief or a profound sense of pity; Blanchett’s performance ensures that we always feel something. A few critics have argued that the character exemplifies Allen’s alleged misogyny, but in Blanchett’s hands Jasmine hardly feels like a limited conception or an object of contempt.

Blanchett’s portrayal of Jasmine is ideally situated here — another director prone to diva worship or Oscar bait might have turned the whole movie into a showcase for his lead actress, but Allen′s unostentatious filmmaking keeps the performance perfectly scaled.

I’d look like this if I had to go to a Chuck E. Cheese too. © Copyright Sony Pictures Classics.

The closest thing to a set piece comes when Jasmine is stuck babysitting her nephews at a Chuck E. Cheese franchise, and — well lubricated from the bottle of wine she brought in — she holds forth in imperious style to the two baffled boys. The scene will stand out even in a highlight reel of Blanchett’s career decades from now. But the shots are so tightly framed that we never even see another booth in the restaurant. Jasmine is a diva without footlights: There′s no camera movement, no musical cue or lighting effect to signal to the viewer to pay closer attention — nothing, that is, except Blanchett’s performance itself.

Jasmine dons her airs like body armor to keep the horrors of a lower-class lifestyle at bay, but behind her hauteur she has precariously little sense of self. The post-breakdown Jasmine might act like a sacred monster one minute and fall apart the next. But in the flashbacks, Blanchett lets us see another persona entirely: the Jasmine whom she considers to be her real self, a woman fluent in a world of extravagant wealth. She never has to break a sweat, never encounters any significant friction anywhere she goes. Reality itself seems to have been airbrushed here, and Jasmine is so at ease in this life that it’s no wonder that afterward, cast out into a world of modest apartments and humdrum 9-to-5 jobs, she herself will seem so brittle and artificial, unable to readjust.

Imagine what this movie would be like if Woody’s idol Ingmar Bergman had directed it. © Copyright Sony Pictures Classics.

Allen never shows us Jasmine’s nervous breakdown. Nor do we see some of the other traumatic events that brought her to San Francisco. Those scenes would lead Blue Jasmine into being a darker film than it is. As it is, darkness steals around the edges of the movie, and Blanchett’s performance certainly points toward that edgier film as well. There are scenes where the star turn is royally entertaining, but then Jasmine will start muttering to herself — in a heated dispute with the phantoms from her past, oblivious to her surroundings — and the sense of a mental dam about to burst is so acute that watching this woman suddenly becomes uncomfortable.

Jasmine stands as an iconic character in her own right, while speaking to a wider pathology in the culture. Her years spent in the proverbial bubble of luxury and privilege — every bit as sealed off as Eric Packer in his white limo in Cosmopolis — made her the opposite of worldly. The money practically infantilized her, leaving her unable to function outside of her carefully proscribed habitats. Cast out of that world, she’s bitter without having learned anything from her experience. The script makes clear that she still has an unerring eye for luxury brand names, which I fear is what passes for sophisticated these days.

You can watch the trailer for Blue Jasmine here:

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