When Appellate Judge Tom Becker's jasmine turned blue, he just re-sodded.
There's only so many traumas a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming.
Writer/Director Woody Allen's 43rd feature film (he also directed a couple of shorts and a TV adaptation of Don't Drink the Water), Blue Jasmine is, perhaps, his most incisive work in years. It's arguably his most disturbing: although Allen is famous for his comedies, he's received attention for his melancholy dramatic work (Interiors, Another Woman), and many of his comedic films have had the laughs buttressed by a bittersweet, occasionally distressing, undertone.
I'll admit, I haven't been wild about Allen's work for a while now; certainly Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Sweet and Lowdown have considerable charms, but films like To Rome with Love, Deconstructing Harry, and Whatever Works have largely fallen flat.
I'm happy to report that Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen's strongest work in years, a pungent character study and an arresting drama that even those who still prefer the director's "earlier, funny work" should find satisfying; that it contains a career-best performance by Cate Blanchett, and a near-career best by Sally Hawkins, only help seal the deal.
Facts of the Case
One-time socialite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth) sees her world crumble when her über-wealthy investment manager husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin, It's Complicated), is convicted of running a Ponzi scheme. Everything they own is confiscated by the government, and Hal ends up committing suicide in jail.
No longer globetrotting or hosting fabulous parties on Park Avenue or the Hamptons—in fact, not even welcome in those places any more—Jasmine flies to San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky). Ginger's lifestyle is considerably more down-market than Jasmine's was—she lives in a small apartment in a working-class neighborhood, is raising two sons by her construction-worker ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane), and is dating Chili (Bobby Cannavale, The Station Agent), an amiable mechanic.
Jasmine, who has spent most of her adult life being pampered and indulged, is finding it near-impossible to get a grasp on her situation. She's also making life near-impossible for patient sister.
But then, something happens, and it looks like Jasmine might have another shot—not at doing anything useful on her own, but using her beauty, sophistication, and poise to attract someone who might rescue her. But is it possible to escape a past life that's caused so much fallout for so many bystanders?
In some aspects, Blue Jasmine so resembles the Tennessee Williams classic that it could be called "A Streetcar Named Delusion." There's the fragile, "cultured" sister forced by circumstance to move in with her less-refined sibling; the sibling's loutish former husband (and a loutish current boyfriend, thrown in for good measure); a romance with a possible savior built on a web of lies; even comparable music motifs—"Paper Moon" for Blanche, "Blue Moon" for Jasmine.
But the similarities might go a little deeper. If Blanche du Bois represented the declining South, then Jasmine is certainly representative of the declining Northeast—declining, at least, as a place where people feel as secure as they once did investing their money? Wall Street might have "bounced back" from the crash of '08, but certainly the way that played out engendered an awful lot of resentment and mistrust. And of course, there's Bernie Madoff, perhaps the most famous modern-day swindler, and whose story this could very well be—or, rather, it could very well be his wife's story.
But there's no call for sympathy here for the surrogate Mrs. Madoff; in fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a less-sympathetic character than Jasmine—at least, one who's not an out-and-out criminal or villain. Haughty and deluded, she's made herself a bed of roses with spikes underneath, and we watch as the petals slowly dry up. She shows up at Ginger's home in San Francisco with virtually nothing in her pockets, but still makes a point of telling her modest-living sister about the annoyances she encountered on her first-class flight; she's also dripping with designer clothes and accessories.
Even as we watch Jasmine mentally crumble, it's hard to root for her because she seems unwilling to assess her life and situation in a rational way and take responsibility. The closest she has to a plan is to become an interior designer; she believes she can get licensed through an on-line program; but since she can barely navigate the Internet, she must first take a computer class. It's an endless, painfully elliptical fantasy, one that Jasmine isn't going to let go without a fight—even if the battleground is within her head.
Allen employs a flashback structure to give us a glimpse of Jasmine's socialite life—though, importantly, not all flashbacks are from Jasmine's perspective. We already know that disaster has happened, but by giving us a front-row seat to its unfolding, the film at times takes on the qualities of a mystery. It's strong work: the writing stark and spare without losing the famed Allen wit, the direction pointed yet unobtrusive.
Cate Blanchett's performance is dizzying in its greatness. Complex, harrowing, and at times flat-out funny, this is stunning, seminal work, an exquisite, no-holds-barred piece of acting perfection. Nearly matching her is Hawkins, who takes what could have been a hackneyed salt-of-the-earth character and imbues her with a force-of-nature life's blood. Hawkins can do more with her inscrutable half-smile than many actresses can do with a two-page monologue. Allen gets champion-level work from his entire cast, including Baldwin, Cannavale, and—surprisingly, at least to me—Clay.
Blue Jasmine (Blu-ray) comes from Sony sporting the kind of solid tech you'd expect from a new release—2.35:1/1080p HD widescreen transfer, with DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. It also comes with something you don't normally find on an Allen disc: supplements. Nothing involving Allen, who doesn't believe in such things, and nothing worth cheering about, really, but the brief "Notes from the Red Carpet," which offers various cast members tossing off sound bites at a premiere, and a substantially longer and more informative press conference Q&A, featuring Blanchett, Clay, and Peter Sarsgaard, are nice additions. There's also a trailer and a digital download.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So much of Blue Jasmine rings so true that the parts that feel a little false really stand out. Cheap gags are really not Allen's stock in trade, but when he sinks to them, he sinks pretty low. Case in point: an awkward, largely unnecessary, and distracting subplot dealing with Jasmine receiving unwanted attention from an unpleasant admirer. For such an intelligent and incisive film, this subplot stands out like the proverbial sore thumb, like something Allen discarded from an earlier draft that was shot and inserted behind his back.
One of Woody Allen's best films in years features two of the best performances of the year, by Blanchett and Hawkins. Highly recommended.
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