Blue Jasmine

I had become convinced that in order to enjoy a recent or new Woody Allen film you had to accept some precepts.  First of all when the lights go down you are entering a world where everybody is smart and has a good liberal arts education to go with a healthy interest in art, literature and philosophy.  They are all articulate and many of them are neurotic.  This is Woody Allen’s world, and after close to fifty years of filmmaking, I figured he saw no need to stretch. 

Blue Jasmine is something of a curveball.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a pampered Manhattan socialite, whose husband Hal, played in flashbacks by Alec Baldwin, was arrested for perpetrating a Bernie Madoff type scheme.  Jasmine travels to San Francisco to stay with her estranged sister, Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins, while she gets on her feet.  But Jasmine’s move down to the working class doesn’t go so well.

For one thing, one of the victims of Hal’s schemes was Ginger and her then husband Augie, played by Andrew Dice Clay, who won $200,000 in the lottery but lost it when they invested with Hal.  So there is a lot of resentment there as well as class warfare.  Especially since Ginger has a serious boyfriend, Chili, played by Bobby Cannavale who is about to move into her small apartment.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar it’s because Blue Jasmine is very much a modern update of A Streetcar Named Desire.  This may sound like a dubious proposition on the face of it but Woody makes it work by welding Tennessee Williams’ plot to his own sensibilities and an Occupy theme.  He sacrifices some nuance but the movie works.

The most important reason it works is casting.  Woody has had many leading ladies; some call them muses, in his day.  They are all beautiful women and good actresses.  Cate Blanchett is a great actress.  She takes Woody’s wordy and overly mannered dialog and makes it seem natural.  She plays the role like a bundle of vulnerabilities.  Her slow destruction is difficult to watch in places.  You see her make wrong choices, and deep down you know that she knows they’re mistakes but she is unable to stop herself from making them.  Jasmine knows how this is going to end and in Cate Blanchett’s hands that makes it all the more tragic.  As the film goes on and her dreams and fantasies are crushed one by one they use less and less make-up on her so you can see the lines on her face and the bags under her eyes.  She’s coming apart physically as well as mentally.  I don’t know if Blanchett has ever done Streetcar, but if a production were announced, I’d buy a ticket right now.

The rest of the cast is great as well.  Sally Hawkins plays Ginger as a smart working class woman, who knows what’s possible for her and is willing to settle while at the same time dreams of something better.  Bobby Cannavale does fine as her gruff working class boyfriend who also has a softer side.  There is no way he is even going to come close to Brando’s Stanley Kowalski but there is really no shame in that.  Alec Baldwin is really not being asked to stretch here. 

But credit must go to Woody Allen, who had the courage to venture out of his comfort zone.  In Blue Jasmine he has made a movie that doesn’t really feel like a Woody Allen movie, despite all the ragtime jazz on soundtrack.  He ventured out of the world of the Manhattan intelligentsia and privileged and unlike his character Jasmine, he triumphed.

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