All fall down
Cate Blanchett leads superb ensemble in Woody Allen’s melancholic character drama
The new Woody Allen picture, Blue Jasmine—a character drama with intermittent comic overtones—is one of his best. A smartly written roundelay for characters who are unlucky in love and much else, it’s a briskly engaging ensemble piece with pungent roles for a half-dozen well-chosen supporting players and an extraordinarily pungent and complex one for its star, Cate Blanchett, who is superb.
Blanchett plays the eponymous Jasmine, an East Coast upper-cruster who has fallen on calamitously hard times. At the outset of the story, she is just arriving in San Francisco, nearly destitute and hoping to find tenuous sanctuary with her semi-alienated sister Ginger (a delightfully rowdy Sally Hawkins), a mother of two who scrapes out a living as a grocery checker.
Initially, Jasmine and Ginger appear as foils in a low-key comedy of contemporary manners—super wealthy hauteur versus scrappy wage-earner approachability—with both in various states of crisis. The contrasting tensions and mishaps in their respective stories soon become part of a larger story in which the shifting trajectories of their various relationships, familial and romantic alike, begin to mirror each other even as their differences become more aggravated.
Blanchett’s brilliantly elaborated Jasmine is plainly the film’s centerpiece, but the film’s exceptional dramatic substance resides in Allen’s cross-cutting between the two sisters’ separate relationships and misadventures with men. Ginger is married to the raucous Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) at the outset, gets into a long-running, on-again-off-again romance with “grease monkey” Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and has a brief, reckless dalliance with a scruffy charmer named Al (Louis C.K.). Jasmine, who proves complexly irritating to both Augie and Chili, has to fend off the advances of the dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) who hires her as a receptionist, but welcomes those of an ambitious politician (Peter Sarsgaard), and must then face the consequences of her assorted deceptions.
The pivotal relationship in all this—Jasmine with her late Bernie Madoff-like husband Hal (Alec Baldwin)—is cross-cut into the action as well, via periodic flashbacks to their time together in New York and elsewhere, before and during the multistage fall from grace (legal, financial, and otherwise) that leaves Jasmine penniless, alone, and emotionally and spiritually devastated. Outrage at gross financial misconduct hovers over much of this, but the film’s true focus is on the psychology of self-delusion, the invention of roles and selves, and the perilous two-way catering to desire in improvised romantic relationships.
Baldwin’s nonchalance makes his Hal a particularly devilish portrait of high-roller evil. Cannavale wrestles persuasively with a character who runs bafflingly hot and cold. Hawkins is brilliant and—along with Blanchett—should get serious Oscar consideration as well.