As with any filmmaker who writes and directs a new feature film each year (are there others?), not every addition to Woody Allen's oeuvre has been a direct hit. With over forty pictures to his credit, there are bound to be a few duds and an inevitable rehashing of increasingly familiar characters and plot tropes. His last effort, 2012's whimsical, semi-anthological "To Rome with Love
," fell on the side of aimless and scattershot, the beauty of its triptych vistas no match for a bunch of interconnected storylines that never added up, either separately or as a whole. If there is one thing followers of Allen's impressive body of work should know, it's to never count him out or accuse him of being professionally or creatively past his prime. Although "Blue Jasmine" is unmistakably a Woody Allen film in look, style and tempo, in many ways it is every bit the fresh, revitalizing force his surprising 2005 thriller "Match Point
" was. Guided by a powerhouse turn from Cate Blanchett (2011's "Hanna
")really, it's less a performance than a force of naturethis grievously funny, shrewdly devastating character study is as focused and emotionally rewarding as anything Allen has made in the twenty-first century.
Ever since she met super-wealthy Manhattan financier Hal (Alec Baldwin) and became his pompous, pampered, Upper East Side trophy wife, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has given up her aspirations of becoming an archaeologist, all but severing her ties to the working class in the process. A high-society fake who even changed her name from Jeanette several years back, Jasmine's cushy life of parties, pilates, and weekends in the Hamptons abruptly comes crashing down when she learns Hal has been unfaithful and criminally dishonest in one fell swoop. With Hal sent to prison and all their material items repossessed, Jasmine has little choice but to relocate to San Francisco and shack up with her adopted sister, down-to-earth grocery store clerk Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Self-medicating herself with a steady diet of booze and pills, Jasmine aims to go back to college and become something "substantial"she wouldn't dare take on a "menial" position, she claims, until she ends up working the receptionist's desk at a dentist's officebut isn't sure what she wants to do and has no concept that schooling requires money she no longer has. When she meets politician Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), flashbacks to her days of being a kept woman coming rushing back. Jasmine likes that feeling, and is willing to do whatever it might take to reclaim it.
Jasmine is a piece of workhaughty, belittling, delusional, and very likely mentally unstableand credit writer-director Woody Allen for following a lead character as prickly as this one. Despite her politely snobbish, mildly insulting demeanor toward people of a lower social standing than the one she used to reside upon, there is something about hera twinkle in her glassy eyes, mixed with a train-wreck quality in her erratic actionsthat renders her impossible to turn away from or stop caring about. She is so sharply observed and so multifaceted despite most of said facets being unsavory that to have someone of Cate Blanchett's caliber tackle the role with such relish is one of the year's most copacetic cinematic triumphs. Hers is a thoroughly uncompromising acting turn, simultaneously explosive and implosive, caustically funny in her disconnect with the real worldin the same breath that she tells Ginger she hasn't a penny to her name, she nonchalantly talks about flying to the West Coast first-classyet woefully tragic for the same reason. She's lost her husband, her college-aged son, Danny (Ehren Aldenreich), who has abandoned her, and all the comfort she's leaned upon for years. When she questions what she has left, all that she has is her memories (she wastes no time wistfully telling everyone she meets that "Blue Moon" was playing when she first met Hal).
Alternating between two separate timelinesbefore and after Jasmine's so-called fall"Blue Jasmine" is Woody Allen's clearest, most confident film in over a decade. Standing as counterpoint to her big sisboth were adoptedGinger symbolizes the hard-working blue collar, a divorced single mother living with her two young sons, and then also Jasmine, in a tight second-story apartment. In days gone by, Ginger and then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) are seen making the rare trip to New York City to visit Jasmine, who, in turn, disingenuously smiles in their direction and then complains to Hal that she will now have to entertain them while in town. Now it's Jasmine who is down on her luck, relying upon Ginger but still so self-involved that she never stops to appreciate her sister's kindness and generosity. What Jasmine is not shy about is criticizing Ginger's choice in men, from Augie to current beau Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Sally Hawkins (2011's "Submarine
") is lovely as Ginger, in some way idolizing what she believed to be Jasmine's strength before coming to realize how broken and needy she actually is. By contrast, Ginger yearns to do goodnot through a professional title, but by the way she treats othersand Hawkins is impeccably cast in a role that suits her like a worn-in glove.
The supporting cast is no less than superb. Alec Baldwin (2012's "Rock of Ages
") astutely plays Hal as a man who believes his affluence and power gives him the right to do what he wants, even if that means manipulating Jasmine and sleeping around with their friends. As Dwight, Jasmine's best shot at replicating her old lifestyle, Peter Sarsgaard (2011's "Green Lantern
") is effective as a man who starts to fall for Jasmineor, more specifically, the theatrical air Jasmine masks herself with as she lies to him about everything from her past to her profession (she says she's an interior decorator). Louis C.K. (2009's "The Invention of Lying
") goes low-key and perfectly disarming as Al, a sweet guy Ginger starts to see when her relationship with Chili stalls. The key revelation about Al's character feels both inevitable and like a crushing betrayal, perhaps serving to make the point that Ginger's usual choice in men aren't all wrong after all, but only seen that way when viewed through the prism of Jasmine's twisted mind. Making a positive impression that likely no one saw coming, Andrew Dice Clay (2001's "One Night at McCool's
") gets the best role he's had in memoryheck, it's the first
film role he's had in twelve yearsfitting right in and convincingly going toe-to-toe with both Blanchett and Hawkins as Ginger's ex-husband, Augie. Now that he's gotten older and is twenty-plus years separated from his infamous stand-up acts, Clay could very well have a real shot at becoming a go-to character actor.
Everybody at one point or another has passed a person on the street, or someone hunched over on a city bench, as they prattle on talking to themselves. "Blue Jasmine" provides an unsuspectingly harrowing exemplification of how such a human being might come to be the kind of unhinged individual whom others go out of their way to avoid. Ultimately, Jasmine does mean well, but she goes about things all wrong in her pursuit of happiness, wealth and status, these three things inextricably linked as far as she's concerned. It's only a matter of time before she falls even further into an abyss that, whether she realizes it or not, she's at least partially made for herself. Cate Blanchett is mesmerizing as Jasmine, a woman who talks a big game but knows next to nothing about the world she exists in. Arriving in San Francisco should be a new, somewhat exciting beginning for herthe city is certainly idyllic enough, captured with hopeful, alluring lushness by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (2013's "Warm Bodies
")but instead it might be the bitter end of the line. Maybe, just maybe, Ginger, living paycheck to paycheck but proud of what she's earned for herself, was the one who had it figured out all along. Watching Jasmine's slide from grace is sometimes painful, at other times painfully droll, and always uncontrollably fascinating.