Blue Jasmine, a movie directed by Woody Allen
Jasmine has been spoiled.
She is the elder and favored of the two girls adopted by her parents. She parlayed her obvious intelligence, taste, and good looks into an advantageous marriage that precludes, by choice and disposition, Jasmine having a job, let alone a career, or striving to make a name and place for herself anywhere but in the social zeniths of Manhattan and The Hamptons, world enough for Jasmine and her exclusive ilk.
Jasmine, as intricately and meticulously created by Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s deftly engaging movie, Blue Jasmine, is not idle. She is the understatedly chic soul of social poise and responsibility, using her best traits and instincts to do more than shop or gossip, although she does plenty of both. Jasmine’s decorative and wardrobe choices are impeccable, she is conspicuously charitable, and her dinner parties are famous for their perfection. Jasmine steers a true and respectable, if predictable, courses that earns universal approval from her judgmental sphere.
Suddenly, Jasmine’s world collapses. Her husband, a schemer of Madoff caliber, is carted to jail, and the Federal government confiscates all of her cash and property as ill-gotten gains that could have only accrued from Jasmine’s husband’s crooked doings because Jasmine did not work. Jasmine also becomes a social pariah, her status in fashionable New York vanishing faster than the tasty hors d’oeuvres from her dinner parties.
Though Jasmine retains all the talents that made her successful in corporate society, she does nothing with them. She doesn’t even think of employing them to establish a life or career of her own, arranging parties for the toney folks she entertained, for example. Or at least Allen, as screenwriter, doesn’t. He has another route in mind, a route that is unfortunately more likely and therefore more realistic.
Penniless, but not so broke she can’t generously tip a cabbie, she arrives to begin a new life at the steps of her sister ,the younger and the less favored of the adopted, in a decidedly charmless section of San Francisco.
Like many of Jasmine’s Manhattan acquaintances, her sister, Ginger, played with expected bright freshness by the remarkable Sally Hawkins, has seen her relatively puny financial portfolio destroyed by Jasmine’s feckless husband. Jasmine has always treated Ginger with tolerant disdain. Ginger, puppyish and loving, can’t wait to help her fallen sister and relishes the chance to gain possible approval from the previously aloof Jasmine.
Through Blanchett, Allen paints a vivid portrait of a privileged person rendered helpless by unfamiliar circumstances. In an admitted, intentional homage to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire, the director contrasts Jasmine’s reliance on the kindness of strangers with Ginger’s survival instincts. The Blanche-Stella parallels pile up, but Blue Jasmine remains its own story with contemporary rather than 1940s sensibilities and a setting that makes use of the endless beauty of San Francisco rather than the redolent steam of New Orleans.
Jasmine obviously disapproves of Ginger. Like Blanche, she thinks her sister’s home is tacky and without style. She finds her former brother-in-law a lout, especially when he reminds her how he lost every dollar he had by believing Jasmine’s husband. Ginger’s current beau, a loud, cocky but sentimentally sweet auto mechanic, played with winning appeal by Bobby Cannavale, also rates the raised eyebrow and the title of “loser.”
Eventually, the only place the lordly Jasmine has sway is over Ginger, but like Stella, the younger sister takes stock of what’s real in her life.
While you root for Jasmine, nee Jeannette, to get her footing and turn her hauteur to her favor, Allen, as writer, supplies doses of reality and reveals nuggets of information that keep the audience from having the total sympathy they may feel for Blanche du Bois. Jasmine is a lost figure, but she has resources Blanche did not have, including being a woman in a later time period, so every time she gains emotional ground, Allen undercuts the situation or has Jasmine do something that makes the audience rethink whether she is a victim of a bad break or of her own folly. Jasmine’s ultimate dilemma will have the audience debating whether she got a fair shake, her deserved comeuppance, or something in the middle.
Whatever the verdict, Woody Allen has made a shrewdly nuanced film, a clear-eyed character study that juxtaposes Jasmine’s luxurious life in New York with her reduced circumstances in San Francisco. His use of beach scenes, apartments, and empty cavernous domiciles help tell the story. He is even clever in introducing the friends Jasmine makes. His narrative and its relation are great, but the real victory is Allen’s casting, especially in choosing the versatile, thoughtful Cate Blanchett as Jasmine.
Blanchett telegraphs multiple complex messages with every expression. You can read what she’s thinking, and the truth she knows, even when she is saying something opposite or showing a simpler face to the person in front of her, especially if it’s Ginger.
Blanchett is equally adept at playing a woman in charge and a woman adrift and in switching moods at a moment’s notice. You can see the potential for breakdown even when Jasmine is strong, and you can see a plan rising to the surface when Jasmine is at wit’s end. And then there are the moments of pathos when Jasmine is plain lost or despondent without a clue about how to rally, and Blanchett conveys those with depth as well. In movies as far afield as Notes on a Scandal and I’m Not There, Blanchett displayed the range of her talent. Whether confident or conflicted, Jasmine Francis is her greatest portrayal yet. It gives her a chance to take command and respond to a wide panoply of situations and emotions, and the actress aces all that Allen throws at her.
Sally Hawkins takes the opposite tack. Her Ginger is always open, always promising that what we see from her character at any given moment is exactly who Ginger is and what she’s feeling. Ginger has learned to accept reality, whatever it is, and rolls with the punches. She has not been spoiled. She has had as many knocks as Jasmine but has made the best of any situation in which she finds herself, including raising two lumpish boys who don’t have half their mother’s or their aunt’s spirit. Hawkins’s Ginger doesn’t have the grandeur or the expectations Jasmine does, and it keeps her level and aware of what is important. The performance is canny in its simplicity and in its contrast to Blanchett’s.
In supporting roles, Alec Baldwin is appropriately suave and nonplussed as the crooked financier, Peter Sarsgaard conveys love in progress as Jasmine’s possible savior, and Bobby Cannavale joins Hawkins in letting all he is show with glory, pride, and a total lack of self-consciousness as Ginger’s fiancé.
Blue Jasmine is the film that ushers in the award season. It is among the most important movies of 2013 and a welcome antidote to vampires, zombies, supernatural beings, and summer fare. In anything, Woody Allen and the characters he presents show us how all to human, and vulnerable, we are.