Film Review – Blue Jasmine
It seems strange that Blue Jasmine marks the first collaboration between Cate Blanchett and Woody Allen. At first glance, they seem to fit stylistically. Hopefully she becomes one of Woody’s go-to actors, because what they provide is yet another interesting, engaging female character, one of many that have populated the writer/director’s previous work. There is a fascinating balancing act happening here, where we get a mix of the comedic as well as the dramatic. It’s very much a “Woody Allen” picture, but not one we often see. There is a level of darkness lying beneath. Despite the somewhat lighthearted tone throughout, we’re given the opportunity to see the deeper, more troubling aspects of these people. This is interesting territory, a place that Woody hasn’t explored in quite some time.
While his name is credited as the writer and director, the true success comes from Blanchett. The more I see of her, the more I’m convinced she’s one of the finest actors working today, male or female. Even if the project isn’t very good, she is almost always effective in it. Her performance as Jasmine is a tour de force. Jasmine is an out-of-her-luck New York socialite, whose husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was arrested for illegal business practices. Jasmine depended on Hal for everything, and often talks about how they met while the song “Blue Moon” was playing. Losing all of her possessions and money, Jasmine desperately turns to her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco for a new start, even when her previous life constantly returns to haunts her.
What a rollercoaster ride of emotions Jasmine is, and Blanchett plays all of it to believable effect. This is an instance where the performance lifts the material to make it better than it probably should be. Jasmine could have been the same neurotic type we’ve seen in previous Woody Allen films, but Blanchett makes the character just as much her own creation as it is his. Her snobby, holier-than-thou attitude mixed with the nervous, edge-of-a-breakdown anxiety is a challenge to take on, but she nails every emotional beat, every high and low asked of her. Jasmine is torn between the wealthy lifestyle she once had and the blue-collar future that awaits her. She talks about going back to school to become a designer but clearly doesn’t believe it, and often drifts into her own mind (even speaking to herself). We get a number of flashbacks to her time with Hal, and how it all came tumbling down. The trials and tribulations of an upper class white person may not sound appealing to some, but Blanchett breathes life into the role. It’s tough not to be interested in what happens to her.
If this premise sounds familiar, it does have echoes of the predicament of Blanche (Vivien Leigh) in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), but there is distinction between the two. While Blanche’s emotional breakdown comes gradually to a boiling point, Jasmine barely holds herself together at all. From almost the very beginning, we can see Jasmine trying to convince herself that things are okay, trying to subdue it with alcohol and medications, but her odd behavior cracks away persistently. This has an effect not just on herself, but on everyone else around her. Ginger is almost too caring and understanding of her sister, especially since the bad business advice Jasmine’s husband gave lead directly to trouble with her own relationships. One of the bigger surprises comes from Andrew Dice Clay, who steps away from his stand-up persona to play Ginger’s ex, and who holds a bitter grudge against Jasmine. Bobby Cannavale also provides good work as Ginger’s current boyfriend, who likewise is pushed to the brink due to Jasmine’s emotional hang-ups.
Without the lead performance, the rest of Woody’s screenplay does feel a bit thin. The side plots involving the numerous flirtations Jasmine and Ginger have with other men don’t carry enough weight to be substantial. Louis C.T.’s talents go unutilized in the role of Al, one of the men infatuated by Ginger. He is awkwardly thrust into the story, and then disposed of almost nonchalantly. The same can be said of Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight, a wealthy gentleman whom Jasmine sees as a way out of her troubles. Again, we have a character that is used more as a plot device than an actual person. The only times these two characters are seen is when the screenplay needs them for some additional dramatic element.
But nearly all of that is forgiven when Cate Blanchett steps on screen and takes over. I can’t reiterate enough how good this performance is, and hopefully when the awards season comes around she gets some deserved attention. She’s funny, selfish, and heartbreaking all within the same person—there was never an inauthentic moment with her. By the time we get to the end of Blue Jasmine, we have witnessed the complete arc of this character, played by someone at the very peak of her acting power.