Acting often makes or breaks a movie, and in Blue Jasmine, Blanchett elevates the film into must-see territory. Respect must be paid for Woody Allen’s consistency of output, averaging out to be one film per year since 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Of course with a career spanning that long there are going to be ebbs and flows in creativity, and I think the problem is that Blue Jasmine leans too heavily on trying to update A Streetcar Named Desire for modern times.
The flashbacks, which set the descent into mental illness and self-prescription, aren’t terrible interesting despite being well-played by all involved. Alec Baldwin makes for a great Bernie Madoff stand-in, Andrew Dice Clay does some solid character work as poor brother-in-law (I know, I was shocked by it too), but these sequences just aren’t as interesting as watching Blanchett’s disgraced upper-class wife suddenly finds herself without a safety net and no visible means to support herself. The flashbacks are of inevitable events, we’ve already been told that she’s lost everything thanks to her husband’s duplicitous schemes in the opening voiceover, so these parts feel redundant.
Luckily Allen does much better work when Jasmine lands in San Francisco to temporarily live with her sister, Ginger (played by the wonderful Sally Hawkins). We see this world, a blue collar menagerie of variations on Stanley Kowalski and Stella, through Jasmine’s fractured point-of-view. Ginger is clearly the Stella proxy, but Stanley is fractured into three different men – her ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), her current boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale, doing dirty, sexy and loud with a nice flair) and a random romance Ginger engages in (Louis CK, nicely expanding on his everyday schlep persona). But Sally Hawkins is real supporting MVP, never overplaying her hand, always working in the background, but investing her character with a truth and honesty that comes to fruition. Ginger and Jasmine clearly have a contentious history together, and even when destitute Jasmine treats all of these characters are poor relations.
Obviously, Jasmine is our modern Blanche DuBois, an aristocratic older sister with a tenuous grip on reality and a penchant for spinning out events to fit the narrative of herself that she has imagined. It’s a juicy role in its original incarnation, and this update works wonders. But Blanchett goes that extra mile, believably playing panic attacks and modulating the performance from someone who is able to keep it together into someone who has completely fallen apart. A scene in which she meets an aspiring politician (Peter Sarsgaard, a criminally underused actor), turns on the charm, and reinvents her entire life history to make herself more appealing to him is a marvel of acting. It is well within Jasmine’s established character to do something like this, but the callous reasoning behind it is even more astonishing. She only wants this man because he represents a stepping stone back to her former life of luxury and refinement. Blanchett’s strident, nervy performance blows the entire competition away, she’s just that good. But when isn’t delivering consistently brilliant work?
I walked away from Blue Jasmine admiring that Allen had taken a hot topic from the headlines and explored from the enablers perspective, but I just wish that he had developed a more original scenario to go with it. At times the film recalls A Woman Under the Influence and A Streetcar Named Desire too heavily to be truly original. But with Blanchett and Hawkins delivery career-best work, and those two influences being great works of art, it’s not a bad thing. It’s also nice to see that so late in the game a writer-director of Allen’s stature still has something to say.