Cate Blanchett can do anything. In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, which my wife and I saw Saturday night, she gives a great performance in an otherwise shallow and unbelievable drama.
You probably already know the story. Jasmine (Blanchett) enjoys a life of indulgence and privilege as the spoiled wife of an extremely rich, New York-based wheeler-dealer (Alec Baldwin). Then her husband is arrested (think Bernie Madoff) and she’s broke. So she moves to San Francisco to live with her working-class younger sister (Sally Hawkins of Happy-Go-Lucky). The film starts with her SF arrival, and shows her previous life of luxury in flashback.
Of course she makes everyone miserable. She’s spoiled and narcissistic in the extreme, complaining, gobbling pills and alcohol, and treating everyone she meets with contempt. In one of the best scenes, she talks of the horror and humiliation of working for a living.
Jasmine has no redeeming values whatsoever. And with that comes the film’s primary problem: Allen shows nothing but contempt for his main character. You can build a black comedy out of a totally reprehensible character, but this is one of Allen’s dramas, and drama requires empathy for the protagonist. Even if they’re a jerk (consider King Lear), there has to be something that makes you care for this person. Allen seems content to show the fall of someone who lacks even the hope of redeeming values.
Of course you feel sorry for everyone who crosses her path–especially her sister. Hawkins is almost as good an actor as Blanchett, and has an innate likeability that makes you cheer for her. But I never really worried about her. Her character doesn’t have much money (she works as a grocery clerk), but she’s practical and you sense that she’ll always land on her feet.
Allen seldom writes working-class characters, and here you can see why. Hawkins manages a realistic human being, but the blue-collar men in her life are simple, loud, and boisterous. Worse, despite the San Francisco setting, they talk and gesture like New Jersey stereotypes.
Blue Jasmine stretches the audience’s credibility in other ways. Didn’t that crook of a husband stash away a few million in overseas accounts inaccessible to American courts? And if not, wouldn’t a book publisher be interested in Jasmine’s story?
And then there’s the whole computer thing. Much is made of Jasmine’s complete lack of cyber skills, to the point where she can’t take an online class in interior decorating without first taking a real class in using a PC. Who could believe that a rich woman who spent most of her adult life shopping, socializing, and planning dinner parties (and who owns an iPhone) can’t handle a Web browser.
And yet, through it all, Cate Blanchett gives a magnificent performance as a hopeless human being circling down the drain. The haughtiness, the despair, the stoned gaze of alcohol and pills, the lies, and the times you’re not sure if she’s talking to someone else or to herself, all come together for a portrait of a desperate, sinking, and utterly reprehensible individual.
Every so often, we’re reminded (in a good way) that this is a Woody Allen movie. Three of four times in the course of the drama, someone says something clever, bizarre, and devastatingly funny. And then you remember that Allen’s best films have always been serious stories told with laughs.
Funny or not, if Allen had found a way to make us care for Jasmine, and had set the story in the real world, it might have been a great movie.
A technical note: Allen shot Blue Jasmine in scope–the 2.35×1 aspect ratio. I believe this is the first time he used the really wide screen since Manhattan.