Woody Allen has said for years that he finds drama more substantial than comedy–he calls writing drama “eating at the adult’s table.” With his latest film, Blue Jasmine, he pays a homage to the tragedians of his admiration, most notably Tennessee Williams, for this film bears more than a passing resemblance to A Streetcar Named Desire.
Cate Blanchett, who played Blanche Dubois in Streetcar on Broadway, stars as Jasmine French (she changed the name for the more prosaic Jeannette). As the film opens, she has come, tail between her legs, to live with her comparatively dowdy sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is dating a brutish auto mechanic (Bobby Cannavale). As the film unfolds, we learn that Blanchett is at the end of her rope, flirting with madness. Her husband (Alec Baldwin), was a financier who has been busted for white-collar crime, a la Bernie Madoff. Part of his crime was to squander the fortune of Hawkins and her ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay).
Blanchett, used to living a life of luxury on Park Avenue, the Hamptons, and San Tropez, bristles at Hawkins’ humble abode in San Francisco (at least the cost of living is still high). She is forced to take a job with a grabby dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and tries to get on with her life, but falls into a relationship with a would-be politician (Peter Sarsgaard), but this relationship is founded on the lies she finds it too easy to tell.
I found Blue Jasmine to be an excellent film, and unlike some of Allen’s other dramas, doesn’t stint on jokes. But perhaps I expected too much–it’s not that good. Certainly Blanchett is brilliant–her Jasmine is so real it’s kind of scary. The character is almost always on something, whether it’s vodka or Xanax, and Blanchett is able to convince us of her self-induced fogs just by her eyes and facial expressions. But it’s not showy–I never found her to be chewing the scenery, and always played the scene truthfully.
Perhaps what bothers me is that I never could get Allen’s point in contrasting Jasmine and Ginger’s lives. He pointedly makes them adopted, so they don’t share blood; their connection is not a randomness of biology but of civil action. Hawkins, like Stella Kowalski in Streetcar, is unfailing cheerful, but finally has enough of Blanchett’s snobbery, long after any audience member would have blown their top.
Allen, who I imagine doesn’t rub elbows with the common man much these days, even at Madison Square Garden during the Knick games, doesn’t mock Hawkins’ lifestyle, but uses it for easy gags. A long and otherwise funny scene with Blanchett, Hawkins, and Cannavale at a wharf-side restaurant gets a little weird when Cannavale brings a buddy along as a blind date for Blanchett. (he’s played deftly by Max Casella). Blanchett, thrust into the world of regular people, can hardly stand engaging in conversation as they suggest jobs for her. I felt Allen’s script tilted negatively toward the 99 percenters, as flashbacks to Blanchett’s life with Baldwin is painted as rosy as possible, even if it is built on sand.
Another scene is a flashback to when Hawkins and Clay visit Blanchett and Baldwin in New York (I’m as surprised as everyone by how good Clay is). Again, the jokes are good but easy, as the two rich people can hardly stand the relatives from Palookaville.
A sub-plot involving Hawkins’ affair with a sweet-mannered man (Louis C.K.) offers an interesting counterpoint to the main storyline. In a way, this thread is more heartbreaking, as Hawkins is a much more sympathetic figure.
I don’t want to be make it sound like I’m picking on this film–it’s very good, and has a lot of great moments. Allen enthusiasts will get a kick out of the name of Stuhlbarg’s character–he’s Dr. Flicker, the same name of the doctor in Annie Hall who tells young Alvy Singer not to be worried about the universe expanding. Hawkins is great, Baldwin is perfect–he’s sort of the go-to guy on rich cads these days–and Blanchett, though her character may be getting what she deserves, is luminous. I think she’s got to be the frontrunner right now to win Best Actress next Oscar ceremony.
My grade for Blue Jasmine: B+.