The emergence of a truly strong Woody Allen picture these days often goes to show how much the director’s been treading water in recent years. He has certainly maintained the same output as he did in the 80s, but with notably less ambitious behind that productivity. Films like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Whatever Works and To Rome with Love set a markedly low bar for storytelling, and even more charming efforts like Vicky Cristina Barcelona are pretty basic in terms of narrative. Let’s not forget that only 25 years ago Woody Allen used both his barbed writing style and woozy directorial vision to craft as spiraling an introspective narrative as Another Woman, a film I also bring up because Blue Jasmine‘s title is just as elusively misleading.
Neither the name of a precious stone or a simple identifier of the protagonist’s mood, Blue Jasmine proves to be both a deceiver to the audience as it is a lie Cate Blanchett’s character tells to herself. Blanchett plays Jasmine, or Jeanette if you choose to go by her birth name, formerly the wife to business criminal Hal, played in flashbacks by Alec Baldwin, now moving in with her sister during the aftermath of Hal’s arrest. Said sister Ginger, played by an ever scrappy Sally Hawkins, really provides the emotional and economic opposite to Jasmine, both sisters adopted by the same parents. Somehow their lives have spun off in vastly different directions, even to different coasts, with Ginger living in San Francisco in the present while Jasmine drifts off back to her past in New York. A tale of two cities and sisters, essentially.
As Jasmine gets to know Ginger’s batch of friends, from gruff ex-husband Augie, played by Andrew Dice Clay, to titularly flavorful current boyfriend Chili, played with much more fiery zest by Bobby Cannavale, Jasmine sinks her talons ever so subtly into Ginger’s life. All the while her own personal arc has her taking up an uncomfortable desk job for an over-eager dentist played by a hilariously skeevy Michael Stuhlbarg. When that ends in disaster, she makes it her day job not to actually find a job, but to pick herself up a new husband, an appetite that’s fueled by the gold-coated entrance of Peter Sarsgaard’s Dwight Westlake, a last name brimming with the kind of class Jasmine’s searching for.
With such a wide ensemble to serve, you’d expect the characters to lose some of their flavor, but nearly each of these uncharacteristic casting decisions pays off in dense performances and vibrant characterizations. Blanchett obviously is of the utmost focus when she’s onscreen, it helping that her character has both a situationally and psychologically unhinged quality that allows for any number of extreme mannerisms, which are her absolute forte. When she boards a character, she rides to the extremes, either to capitalized scene-stealing or often delicious camp. She may at some point risk doing too much of the latter, akin to Gary Oldman’s late career spin, but Jasmine is a fully stocked individual, at once physically revoking the lowlifes of Ginger’s world and desperately clinging to any stranger who cares to listen to her life. She’s addicted to her own former life, but revolted by the prospect of it being former.
Blanchett’s magneticism thankfully doesn’t make her counterparts blander in comparison, the entire cast building their own kind of manic energy. Hawkins has a naturally cozy quality about her that both the film and Jasmine seem to draw into overt questioning. It doesn’t matter that she’s perfectly happy and charmed by her wear-and-tear San Francisco crowd. Jasmine will still loudly scold her and quietly manipulate her into an inopportune fling with Louis C.K., who fits well into the framework of the story, though it’s one of the few parts that serves that story more than it does the actor’s comedic skills. Bobby Cannavale pops most of the film’s supporting players, Chili’s inarguable passion for Ginger blindsided by Jasmine’s selfish advice for her to “do better”. He fuels one of the film’s most physical arguments at the midpoint of the film, but merely plays quiet party to Ginger and Jasmine’s final spat.
Sarsgaard’s Dwight is quite the bright charmer, but also a necessary outsider to Jasmine’s natural craziness. He does well to turn a vacant vessel into an active emotional response to her sly maneuvering. Over the course of the film we begin to wonder if Jasmine is just as slick a playboy or operator type as her ex-husband, whose own fate is doled out in a shockingly frank manner. Allen keeps elliptically spirals Jasmine back to New York, often segued there via glaring non-sequiturs delivered by Ginger’s two sons, as sly a recurring comic gag as can be found in his films nowadays. Though it seems there’s nothing to hide about her sordid past, the flow of the narrative hints that there’s secrets still to be unwound that might make Jasmine even less sympathetic than she already is.
There’s a surprising degree of craft packed into this film, from Vicky Cristina Barcelona DP Javier Aguirresarobe’s woozily unmedicated, soft amber lensing to Sonia Grande’s character-specific costume design, tailoring Jasmine’s suits too tight as she does Ginger’s bright colours so loosely. All these aspects are splurged into the chemistry of the film quite freshly by Allen, who for once lets us soak in the manic tendencies of his characters. Just when the film and Jasmine have seemingly nowhere left to go, he serves up deep slice of a bitter closing note, with smallest cast addition Alden Ehrenreich surprising most for his limited screentime, with the gut emotions of harsh betrayal coming through with more vigor, judgment and significance though him. In the end the strongest aspect of Blue Jasmine is how it pieces together the shattered elements of her New York snowglobe, now a sloppy schizophrenic mess, and crushingly so.
Bottom Line: Cate Blanchett is the vehemently magnetic draw of Blue Jasmine, but carries an ensemble just as zesty & colorful.