Woody Allen has proved to be a filmmaker of many talents in his five-decade career, yet he continues to — every few films — push himself into new territory, and he’s done so with “Blue Jasmine.” Cate Blanchett stars as the severely troubled titular character and she and Woody prove to be a perfect match for each other, though not quite in the same way as Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Scarlett Johansson (arguably) and Penelope Cruz.
I haven’t seen every Allen film, but “Blue Jasmine” might be his only true character study. Relationship studies? Been there, done that. This, however, is a piercing psychological portrait of the main character and so it comes as no surprise that Blanchett’s performance is surrounded by awards talk.
Jasmine is a middle-aged woman who has moved out to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), because her world has fallen apart. For years she was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), an impossibly wealthy New York businessman, but he was discovered for fraud (among other illegal practices), convicted and imprisoned, so Jasmine has lost everything.
After having been surrounded by wealth and ease since before she was even able to graduate college, Jasmine’s state of being is certainly less than stable. She occasionally hallucinates flashbacks of her “previous life” and pops Xanax at the first sign of discomfort, which is often. Allen is well known for characters with neuroses, but Jasmine is a walking diagnosis. Considering she was spoiled rotten her whole life and turned the other way when it came to her husband’s business dealings and promiscuous behavior, it’s also incredibly hard to have empathy for her.
That’s where the real power of Blanchett’s performance (with credit of course to the screenplay) comes in. She nails the side of Jasmine that’s teetering on the edge of insanity, but the fact that she can convey the complexity of Jasmine’s wounded soul and earn sympathy points with the audience is a feat of the highest commendation. Allen has a history of unlikable lead characters, but Jasmine could have easily ranked among the worst given her sense of privilege. Allen does a good job grounding the character well enough to us to truly consider her circumstances and invest ourselves in the story.
The supporting players are an unusual lot for Allen in terms of the actors, but they fit more into his mold as characters. Hawkins, who has been tearing up the British independent film scene for years now, finally gets herself in front of a larger audience as Ginger, who deals with the brunt of the Allen-esque sister tension. Hawkins takes the archetype of the woman who dates big blue-collar guys with tempers and can’t seem to break the pattern and turns her into an independent, progressive character. Ginger wrestles with the change in perspective that her sister brings, namely the idea that she deserves better. Her taste in men brings in a most intriguing trio of men for an Allen film: Andrew Dice Clay as her ex- husband, Augie, Bobby Canavale as her overly sensitive new beau, Chili, and Louis CK — of all people — as Al, with whom she has a fling.
The film is told with extensive flashbacks to try and create a sense of how Jasmine’s brain works, with constant triggers to past memories. These memories show key moments in the rise and fall of Jasmine’s marriage and life of wealth and slowly tell us more and more about her character. They also illuminate tensions between Jasmine and Ginger, which stem from the fact that Hal’s demise essentially caused Ginger’s split from Augie.
The script highlights socio-economic tensions and divisions in society and challenges the idea of what it means to be wealthy, happy and to have your life in order. Jasmine’s attempt to reinvent herself in San Francisco shows just how hard it is to live in a way that’s less luxurious than you’re used to. In this way, Allen has done so much more than tell another great story about a neurotic character with relationship problems. His choice to not put his comic bent on this particular film shows just how seriously he feels his main character’s problems are in the world we live in.
“Blue Jasmine” lacks the charm of Allen’s comedies and the dark, harrowing twists of his dramas, but it still has his fingerprints all over it. How refreshing to see him apply his techniques and story devices toward making a film that explores the deeply troubling divisions embedded in our society as represented by the main character rather than just making another statement about the life of the upper-middle class through characters bickering over trivialities. And all this at 78. Bravo, Woody, bravo.
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay