If there’s one are where Woody Allen is generally reliable, even when the quality of his movies dips, its eliciting great performances from his ready and willing actors. That’s never been truer than with Blue Jasmine, a film in which the lead performance far eclipses the quality of the screenplay. Cate Blanchett wholly deserves her Oscar, and raises the surrounding picture several levels as a result.
A fair amount of discussion has been generated by the possible inspirations for this story of a New York socialite (Jeanette/Jasmine; Blanchett) who moves to San Francisco to live with her struggling blue collar sister Ginger after the bottom falls out of her marriage and financial affairs. How much is this Allen taking his cues from A Streetcar Named Desire (Jasmine as Blanche and Ginger as Stella)? I’m not familiar enough with the play to pass judgement, although there are certainly superficial similarities. And how much of Jasmine (the character) is Woody channelling his malign view of Mia Farrow into fiction; a fragile, unstable, self-deluding egoist, so shrill and unpleasant only a saint wouldn’t be able to tolerate her obnoxious superiority. I hadn’t aware of the widespread rallying behind this view beforehand, but it was one of the first things that occurred to me about her.
We only see hubby Hal (Alec Baldwin) in flashbacks to their luxury lifestyle. He was a rich financier, but his fraudulent activities led to his arrest, imprisonment and suicide. Dragged down with him were the one-time only savings, a lottery win, of Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her then husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). As a result Ginger’s friends and family aren’t overly keen on Jasmine, considering her at best to have turned a blind eye to Hal’s misdeeds, but Ginger has sympathy for her as a victim of his philandering. The greatest immediate impact on Jasmine is a mental collapse. We first see her talking to herself by way of a reluctant passenger on a plane journey, and we can only sympathise with the elderly woman when she makes a break for it at the luggage reclamation point.
Jasmine’s undisguised disdain for the poverty of her new surroundings and the insufferable snobbery she shows to those she considers lower on the pecking order than her, is underlined by her jaundiced attitude to Ginger and her fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale, fortunately less apoplectic than in Boardwalk Empire, but still a tinderbox). She makes no effort to fit in or empathise. Why should she? She never had to before. So Jasmine carries her world of delusion into this new one, rehearsing past glories and events (in which we see her wilful blindness towards her husband’s behaviour and the slipping veil that she was completely ignorant of what he was up to in business affairs; it suited her to ignore it), fancifully holding out the idea that she can become an interior designer, and even worse spiralling into a doomed relationship with a rich widower (Peter Sarsgaard); one propped up on a succession of lies she just cant help from telling. Throughout this she is constantly popping pills, an abject, semi-functioning alcoholic. Her life is a bipolar car crash.
Little on the page is likely to endear you to Jasmine. This is a merciless character assassination from Allen, even if it is entirely unrelated to Farrow. The very occasional, brief glimmer maybe; a less caustic scene in which, progressively more trolleyed, she imparts some wisdom to her sister’s sons (which boils down to the empty life advice “Tip big, boys”). But even then, the humanity is all Blanchett’s,. That we end up feeling vaguely sorry for her, and the hopeless mess she has made of hers and others’ lives (including that of her stepson) makes her Oscar warranted thrice over.
There's something rather mean-spirited about this picture in general. Evident are the same kind of patronising broad-strokes to Allen’s depiction of rich and poor that made an earlier venture into the realm of class boundaries such a disaster (perhaps the director’s only unintentional comedy, the plaudits it received still mystify me). Allen also takes in the financial crisis, but he may as well not have bothered; neither characters nor events feel remotely contemporary, as if they have alighted from a distant shore and time (he also seems to think everyone else in the world is as computer illiterate as he is). The poor are salt of the earth folk who earn an honest crust. Sure, they have foibles but don’t they got heart! Baldwin’s Hal, meanwhile, may as well have stepped in from his Glengarry Glen Ross cameo (in fairness, one could only really see him as an Allen substitute when he announces he is running off with a teenager). There’s no shading there, but there’s no shading anywhere.
Where one can’t hear Allen’s writing it’s because the actors somehow make the characters their own. Hawkins is very good, but Ginger is so over-familiar (the apologist sister from Hannah and Her…, just less well-to-do). Clay and Cannavale breathe life into their strutting caricatures, and Louis C.K. is winning as Ginger’s sound system salesmen suitor. The most Allen-esque character is probably Michael Stuhlbarg’s predatory dentist (“Have you ever got high on nitrous oxide?”) but he’s such a fine actor he really deserves an Allen lead.
So Allen the writer didn’t deserve his Best Screenplay Oscar nomination, but don’t forget that, besides the well-earned win for the delightful Midnight in Paris, he also got a nod for the execrable Match Point. I’ve missed a number of Allen’s pictures since the millennium turned (it would once have been unthinkable, but I suspect few of them are undiscovered gems in waiting), but this comes across as a conscious attempt to rekindle some of the existential angst of his post-Bergman ‘80s phase (remember the crumbling façade of Charlotte Rampling in the excellent Stardust Memories?)
Perhaps being back on familiar turf brings it home, but it’s more evident than ever that Allen’s got little left to say, apart from venting some unbridled bitterness. That he’s knocking 80 and still making interesting movies, however flawed, is remarkable in itself, however. He pulls off some nice touches; there’s an effective final act reveal, and an appropriate symmetry to the construction as a whole. But mainly, he’s very fortunate to have all these exemplars of acting finery just waiting for his call (although, a few may not be as giddy for it in the light of recently re-heated accusations). And in a case like this, that call is everything. Blue Jasmine is all on Blanchett. Her performance is stunning; repellent, vainglorious and tragic.