His films may be old-fashioned and may not have the same heft as they used to, but nobody can knock Woody Allen’s ability to stay on schedule. At 77 years of age he’s as much a workaholic as ever, cranking out at least one film a year and usually around the same time. The man is simply a machine, and the dedication to his craft admirable as he emerges from a whirlwind tour of Europe where his career went in some interesting new directions and produced some of the most inspired, whimsical films of his career. Whereas his most recent work has trafficked in the romantically surreal, Blue Jasmine brings us crashing back down to reality, powered by a steely and unnerving performance by Cate Blanchett as a socialite whose world has crumbled all around her.
Allen’s seriocomic take on A Streetcar Named Desire, with Blanchett as his jittery Blanche Dubois, lands somewhere between his recent European flights of fancy and his more assured, insightful earlier work that has defined the New York auteur’s career. And it’s clear right from the start that Allen has ambitions for this film that he simply hasn’t had the inspiration for in years. He finds a willing partner in Blanchett, who also has a fondness for the Tennessee Williams play, and when both are on their game Blue Jasmine hums along as a timely and harrowing character study. Those moments are few and far between, though, as familiar problems of inconsistent tone and decrepit writing continue.
Blanchett is the titular Jasmine, and yes she is very blue in spirit, as a Park Avenue socialite who has seen her upscale life torn asunder by her Bernie Madoff-esque husband (Alec Baldwin), arrested for committing no end of white collar crime. Penniless and with nowhere else to turn, she moves to San Francisco to stay with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who seems eager to reconnect despite the dire warnings of those around her. A neurotic ball of vodka, pills, and regret, Jasmine babbles incoherently at a constant clip, often to others but mostly to herself. When she does bother to address Ginger’s blue collar friends, in particular lunk-headed boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), it’s usually a scathing insult told in a dismissive fashion.
Under another actress’s command, Jasmine would be an awful character, but Blanchett finds the pain and the fragility that make her someone we can rally behind. And rally Jasmine does, at least for a time, settling for a demeaning job as a secretary for a pervy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg). She’s thrown a lot of parties and has good taste, so why not become an interior decorator? We even see her get another shot at love with a new man (Peter Sarsgaard), a politician who could thrust her back amongst the elite. Jasmine makes for an intriguing cipher, recognizing that her previous life left her unprepared for the harshness of reality, yet completely willing to go back to a world of ignorant bliss.
Blanchett is a towering, dominant presence throughout, and Jasmine’s struggle to maintain her mental grip is perhaps more distressing than Allen seems to realize. Or perhaps it’s that he’s totally unfamiliar with the San Francisco style and culture, much less the people who exist in it. If his earlier Euro travelogues felt a little shallow because Allen was essentially a visitor, the same can be said for his surface depiction of the Bay Area and its residents. So we get unsubtle characterizations of working class stiffs that could have been lifted straight out of The Flintstones. Cannavale is solid as the passionate Chili, and Louis C.K. does an admirable job as a man Ginger briefly has a fling with, but the real stand out as Andrew Dice Clay in what is truly a comeback role. As Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, he pumps the film full of fire and blood as the only one who truly sees through all of Jasmine’s hoity-toity nonsense. He’s also got one heck of a score to settle, and every time he’s on screen opposite Jasmine the film takes on a different, more contentious quality that we need to see more of. While Hawkins gives a perfectly balanced performance, the sibling dynamic between Ginger and Jasmine is never explored in any meaningful way, with Allen seeming to rely on familiar tropes to get by.
Allen usually has a clear vision for where he wants his films to go, but Blue Jasmine lurches between comedy and tragedy even as it’s not especially funny or quite tragic enough.