Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale and Alec Baldwin
Two sisters; one a blonde suffering from crippling depression and the other a brunette with a fatigued understanding of how to help her. That’s the premise of Woody Allen’s latest, a bruising and mostly unsparing look at a woman who hides serious problems behind bourgeois privilege.
From that description alone, it should be fairly easy to tell just how heavily Blue Jasmine draws from 2011’s Melancholia, which is for me one of the defining films of this decade so far. It’s clear in both films that the protagonists are surrogates of their respective directors, but Allen doesn’t have the film’s world mirror his protagonist or create a distinct editing rhythm that conveys her depression. His movie rests on the more than capable shoulders of Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins, who deliver two distinct but masterful performances here.
Almost every moment that the two sisters share in this movie is cringe-worthy. Jasmine (Blanchett) is the disgraced wife of a Bernie Madoff-esque financial schemer (Alec Baldwin). Her sister Ginger (Hawkins) is a grocer in San Francisco who gives her a place to stay when the shit hits the fan both financially and mentally. Unlike many of Allen’s past anxiety-driven protagonists, Jasmine isn’t played for comedy, though. She is taken very seriously by both the infamous writer/director and Blanchett, whose darting eyes, twitching body and muttering do a great deal to help the movie stay away from upper-class comfort.
Allen seems to be directly confronting many of his past narratives here, which are unapologetic in their focus on the discontents of the well-traveled. “I hope I don’t shatter your illusion,” Jasmine says to a wealthy government worker (an oxymoron played by Peter Sarsgaard) at a party. Sarsgaard’s character shows just how clearly Jasmine needs to delude herself to keep from going over the edge.
Ginger does some mild deluding of her own, but she is a much warmer and embracing person. Hawkins plays her with a necessary hint of melancholy, much like she did with Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky. I’m glad she found her way into this movie, because Ginger would be a throwaway role for most actresses going up against a titan like Blanchett, but Hawkins, though more subdued, is just as good.
Allen’s script takes too long to hit its stride for this to be a truly great movie, and many of the interactions are forced and self-consciously establish the premise. Ranked within the confines of his own filmography, it is definitely one of his most solid modern films. However, as Slate’s Dana Stevans has pointed out, there seems to be a tendency to grade the auteur on a curve. Allen’s creative output is unparalleled in modern American movies; he writes and directs a new one nearly every year. Each new release comes with the anticipation that it could be as good as Manhattan or as bad as Whatever Works.
Blue Jasmine is a perfect illustration of his knack for character interaction and the love he bestows upon whatever location he settles in. After a somewhat fruitfal European detour, he shoots in San Francisco here. Jasmine remarks how “European” the city feels, and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe gives the same warm, unpretentious city love he gave Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Jasmine’s mental anguish lies in stark contrast to her glamorous life, though, as she slips more and more into the hopeless abyss of depression. The shield wealth gave her is almost completely depleted at the end, as is the goodwill her sister showed her by letting her move to her apartment. Allen makes us see a woman who has used good fortune to hide from life, and Blanchett makes her both completely unbearable and excruciatingly empathetic.