Quentin Tarantino once said, “Filmmaking is a young man’s game.” He may have been onto something there because most filmmakers, the greatest included, lose their vitality once they hit a certain age. Not Woody Allen! The icon may be 78 but he’s still going strong, churning out one new movie a year – something he’s done for 31 straight years! While not all of them have been successful, the fact that he still manages to put out highlights like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris at this point in his career is just short of miraculous.
Blue Jasmine, the septuagenarian’s 46th feature, is another one of those late career highlights. Simultaneously scathing and sympathetic towards the materialistic upper crust Manhattan culture it portrays, the movie is at its crux, a tragi-comic homage to A Streetcar Named Desire with the great Cate Blanchett taking on Tennessee Williams’ tragic Blanche DuBois.
Blanchett plays Jasmine, a 50-something Manhattan socialite who, as we learn via flashbacks, lived in a dream world awash with social gatherings, brunches, and blissful ignorance. When her cheating scumbag of a husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) gets busted for embezzling millions from his clients via a Ponzi scheme, her opulent world comes crashing down. Reduced to a Xanex-popping, panic-attack prone, blubbering chatterbox, she flees New York (and humiliation) for San Francisco to seek refuge with the only person willing to put up with her – her kind-hearted half-sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
Ginger, like Stella from A Streetcar Named Desire, is a sweet woman who works at a neighborhood supermarket and lives with her two children in a modest home. She may be poor but she’s happy. She’s also engaged to Chili (Bobby Cannavale), an oafish Stanley Kowalski-type whom Jasmine immediately expresses contempt for. Jasmine, who always been critical of Ginger’s taste in dating blue-collar “losers,” spares no time unleashing venom on her sister. She constantly berates Ginger for having low-self esteem and making poor life decisions even though she conveniently forgets that she’s in no position to pass judgment on anyone either.
Blanchett, who has always excelled at playing strong-headed yet emotionally troubled characters, powers the role of Jasmine with the ferocity of a hurricane. Her Jasmine is a vain and bitter woman who has spent most of her life living in a protective shell of couture. When that shell comes undone, she realizes that she’ll have to start over from scratch to get by. But she’s too much of a pampered baby to actually bother with work. Case in point – When Chili suggests she take up a job as an assistant in a doctor’s office, she scoffs off the position as peasantry. The only time she looks happy is when she meets a sweet-natured diplomat named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) at a party. But when he asks her about her background, she’s too embarrassed to divulge the truth.
Although Allen isn’t portraying a rosy picture of Jasmine and the type of lifestyle she represents, he doesn’t exactly vilify her either. He makes us sympathize with her plight when she has to deal with the weird advances of a nebbish doctor (Michael Stuhlberg) at the office she ends up working at, as well as the daft patients she has to deal with. He gives her comments about Ginger’s choice in men some validity when Chili rears his ugly side. Its credit to Blanchett’s blistering performance that Jasmine comes off as someone that is both, likeable and despicable, as well as funny, sad, pathetic and tragic. Even if she does and says horrible things, the Australian actress makes her likeable enough that we laugh instead of seethe at her.
His work with Blanchett may be the star of the show but Allen, who has built a reputation as an actor’s director over the course of his career, also brings out the best in his supporting cast. Hawkins is absolutely heartbreaking as the impulsive, jovial Ginger who is never able to catch a break in life. Cannavale is equally impressive as Chili who constantly butts heads with Jasmine. But unlike Stanley Kowalski, there’s a warmth to Chili that Allen is careful to highlight. Even Andrew Dice Clay, who looks like he’s finally out of movie jail for The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, elicits pathos as one of Ginger’s ex-husbands. It’s not a large part but Clay’s work is incredibly effecting. Blue Jasmine may not elicit an immediate high like Midnight in Paris nor have the sublimity of his classic work but this is Allen mining dark and dramatic territory, albeit with comedic flourishes – the likes of which he hasn’t delved into since his magnificent 2005 thriller Match Point. Coincidentally, it’s also his best film since then.