“Blue Jasmine” is a type of Woody Allen film that Allen hasn’t made in over a decade: a dramedy that’s more drama than comedy, but isn’t heavily concerned with plot. Perhaps even more than 2011’s “Midnight in Paris,” the movie feels like “vintage Allen,” though I use that term with some level of trepidation because it implies the guy has lost his touch in recent years, and I don’t believe he has (a few bumps in the road, sure, but he’s still remarkably consistent for a filmmaker who churns out a new picture every year). “Blue Jasmine,” while not without the occasional big laugh, is Allen’s most achingly, humanly sad work in a long time, and more surprisingly, maybe his most personal.
I say ‘surprisingly’ because I wouldn’t have expected Allen, a liberal whose resentment toward people of opposing cultural stripes often shows (see: 2009’s “Whatever Works,” the worst film he’s ever made), to inject so much of his own trademark neuroses into Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), the pampered and delusional and obviously Republican wife of a Madoff-esque Wall St. swindler (Alec Baldwin), because doing so implies a certain kinship. But he wisely put personal pride aside and the character is stronger for it, as Jasmine’s deep-seated anxieties, which come to a crippling head when she’s thrust into poverty and forced to move in with her working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco, feel like authentic facets of her personality and not dramatic posturing.
Allen’s contribution to the main character is no small one—the most sympathetic rendering of a one-percenter in a mainstream film since the 2008 financial crisis—but it’s important to recognize that Jasmine would not be the captivating, nuanced woman she is without Cate Blanchett’s uninhibited embodiment. Several critics have noted that Blanchett recently played Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the character Allen clearly models Jasmine after (even making direct references), on Broadway, and while we notice the influence, her performance never feels derivative because it’s so alive. Consistent with Allen’s approach, Blanchett avoids caricature, finding the somber core of a woman who is as dependent on high social stature as she is on Xanax and booze. Jasmine was clearly mentally ill before she was stripped of her husband’s wealth, but without said wealth, she has no reason to try to conceal her instability.
Jasmine goes back to pretending to be healthy for a short period, late in the movie, when she is again afforded one-percent status by new boyfriend Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), an aspiring politician to whom she lies about her past even as they contemplate getting married. He’s one of many supporting characters who inhabit a typically large Allen ensemble. Among the others are Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, provided completely unexpected depth by Andrew Dice Clay; Ginger’s boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), the kind of Average Joe who Jasmine scoffs at for sport; Ginger’s other love interest Al, a new spin on the nice-guy from Louis C.K.; and Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), the only dentist horny enough to give the hopelessly job-hunting Jasmine a receptionist position.
“Blue Jasmine” is also the most visually beautiful movie Allen has made since 1979’s “Manhattan,” which was likewise one of very few films he shot in ‘Scope. Working with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, previously his collaborator on 2008’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Allen gives San Francisco every bit as much pop as the European locales he’s spent the bulk of the last decade shooting in. While I understand that his next movie is set in France, I hope that Allen returns frequently to the States in the coming years, because not only does “Blue Jasmine” serve as a reminder that our cities (even those outside of New York!) are fitting backdrops for his films, but also that Allen is one of cinema’s premier voices about a certain kind of American conscience.