I’m not sure how to feel about Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine. Here, one of the world’s most gifted writers creates a character so spectacularly delusional — so bereft of self-awareness and coping skills that Norma Desmond would be afraid of her — allows her to wreak glorious havoc on everyone within reach, and then draws her out on the same note for nearly two hours, all the while submerging her in a series of weak subplots. It’s as if Allen wrote one of the most unique women in his canon, and then couldn’t figure out what to do with her. And yet…and yet…this is a marvelous film, funny when it needs to be, but profoundly sad in the end. It’s filled with terrific performances, and anchored by a towering one, by Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. What a brilliant mess we have here.
Jasmine is unlike any character I’ve ever seen. A series of brief flashbacks shows us that she’s has fallen on hard times, starting with the indictment of her wealthy husband, Hal (a deliciously slimy Alex Baldwin). Pitched from the top of the New York society ladder and flat broke, she’s forced to fly to San Francisco to move in with her affable sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and Ginger’s two young sons. Still rocking her finest Chanel despite the setback, Jasmine glides imperiously through the apartment raving about the decor in mock delight, all the while clutching her pearls. She greets her nephews as if they might be covered in Avian flue. Ginger’s boyfriend, Chili (a wonderful Bobby Cannavale), doesn’t help. All greased-up hair and gold chains, his clothes might scream the Jersey Shore, but his heart speaks uncomfortable truths. He sees through Jasmine’s self-absorbed machinations, setting up the movie’s most fascinating conflict, as the two butt heads over what it means to be a real human being.
Having never worked a day in her life, Jasmine reluctantly take a job as the receptionist for a lecherous dentist, a move that leads to disastrous, if hilarious, results. She deals with the failure the only way she knows how: through booze, pills, and a series of alarming panic attacks that are more self-induced than clinical. The anxiety allows her to retreat from the painful facts of her life, while simultaneously garnering frustrated sympathy from those unfortunate enough to get sucked into her vortex. Somehow, no matter what, it always ends up being about Jasmine. When Ginger’s attempt to find a more sophisticated lover than Chili ends in heartbreak, she discovers that Jasmine’s shoulder isn’t the one to cry on, because Jasmine’s already crying on it. This subplot comes across as a bit of an unnecessary hammer to the head, as the screenplay has already made it abundantly clear that Jasmine can’t be relied upon for anything. Same goes for Jasmine’s brief relationship with a wealthy would-be politician, played gamely by Peter Sarsgaard. Both of these subplots are well-written and acted splendidly, but nothing in them does anything to advance our notion that Jasmine is an insufferable buzzkill.
And that, I think, is the crux of the problem: Jasmine is always Jasmine, from the opening scene where she unilaterally spills her entire life story to an unlucky airline passenger, to the end, as she sits on a park bench muttering incoherently to the wind. There is no arc to this character–no beginning, middle, or end–and no growth. What has she learned, as the credits begin to roll? And what have we, the audience, learned about her, other than she makes the lives of others miserable? Allen suggests, more than subtly, that Jasmine isn’t altogether right in the head, but whether that’s a result of her downfall, he doesn’t say.
All of that complaining aside, Blue Jasmine is a riveting, endlessly watchable film. How is that even possible, you ask? Because the moments that work, work exceedingly well. The sum of the movie’s parts is better than the whole, I suppose you could say. The scenes between Jasmine and Chili crackle with dark humor and intensity, and a sequence where Jasmine goes on a diatribe about life to her nephew’s in a restaurant contains some of the year’s best writing. Sally Hawkins has, I think, the more difficult role, as a woman who must maintain a sense of supreme patience in the presence of a narcissistic monster, and she play it with great spirit and charm. Cate Blanchett, as the film’s center, takes Jasmine right up to the edge of parody, hovers there for much of the film, and then brings her back without so much as batting an eyelash. It’s an extraordinary performance from one of the greatest actresses working today, even if the character she’s playing is a strange one-note concoction.
On a final note: Much has been made of Andrew Dice Clay’s against-type performance in this film. He’s very good here, as Augie, Ginger’s working-class ex-husband, who still harbors deep resentment against Jasmine for a business deal gone horribly wrong. Unfortunately, his character is used mainly as an expository mouthpiece to fill in backstory, and then to drop a massive bombshell near the end of the film. Which means that Augie is nothing more than a device to advance the story. Such a shame to build Clay up in a high-profile role, only to let him down with a superfluous character.
2013; starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins; directed by Woody Allen; 98 min; PG-13
[Author’s note, 12-31-13: Last week, I had an incident with my web host and lost all the star ratings for my reviews. Most have been easy to reassign, but Blue Jasmine has given me pause. Upon seeing it for the first time, I gave the movie three stars. Now, I think it deserves three-and-a-half. Since I have the opportunity, I’m changing my mind. Expect this to be a rare occurrence.]