Cate Blanchett can't shut up in BLUE JASMINE, Woody Allen's latest dramedy which added more cities this weekend for its platform rollout. We join Jasmine (real name "Jeanette") in medias res on a flight to San Francisco as she's chattering away with, no, at an older companion. She goes on and on (and on some more!) about her love affair with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) all the way through to baggage claim.
But Jasmine is a liar or at least a half truth-teller. We will immediately discover that her great love affair ended in ruin. Hal was a criminal, a financial con artist who pampered Jasmine with other people's fortunes and ruined everyone including Jasmine. She's moving in with her estranged adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), also ruined by Hal's crimes, now that she's destitute. Jasmine hasn't adjusted to her new facts, though, treating her cabbie from the airport like a personal chauffeur, and leaving him a big tip considering she's supposed to be penniless.Jasmine isn't always "in the now" as it were. She never is actually, talking or bragging or obsessing over the past.
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When she's not downing xanax like breath mints she's dreaming of the future which looks suspiciously like the past with socioeconomic status restored and rich husband (albeit a new one) to care for her. Once Jasmine is living with Ginger, and bristling at her sister's low class digs (pretty spacious and nice for a check-out girl's salary!) and her unsophisticated boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), the mashup of A Streetcar Named Desire and the Bernie Madoff scandal becomes apparent.
Woody is a smart enough screenwriter to avoid direct this equals that correlations, though. A Streetcar Named Desire is untouchable and the basic template is a solid enough melody to riff jazzily on. Cannavale, for instance, has the "Stanley Kowalski" macho-crybaby role minus the danger. The "Mitch" role has a few suitors but none of them ever quite work. As for Blanchett's own "Blanche", well Jasmine's fall is less innocent and poetic but she's no less of a mess than that Southern Belle once she hits bottom.
If your protagonist is going to babble incessantly for 98 minutes –as Jasmine does, to herself and to others — you can't do much better than casting Cate Blanchett. Her voice has always been her greatest asset as a star actress, full of affect, sure (and that suits Jasmine who is always putting on airs), but melodious and extremely flexible to character. Her chords can hit you with delicate tremors of feeling or tectonic shifts in tone that level whole scenes.The cacophony of her chatter peaks with hilariously inappropriate life-lessons for her dumbfounded nephews:
"There's only so much trauma a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming."
But the most inspired beat in her angry self-pitying performance may well be a silent one. [Spoiler Alert] While shopping with her new boyfriend Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), Jasmine is confronted by a figure from her past who exposes her myriad lies and mentions her son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich) whom she has conveniently denied existed. Blanchett goes dead silent for a moment in the space where she'd usually be lying, lost not in the humiliation of exposure — she doesn't even seem to register Dwight's outrage –but shocked into temporary bracing present tense reality. [/Spoiler]
Blue Jasmine is fleet and vivid at 98 minutes and funny, too, despite its tragic nature. Yet it's also in some ineffable way kind of blurry, a half success which never quite comes into focus or shakes off its duller sideshow impulses. It hasn't worked out what to do with Ginger, underusing the excellent Sally Hawkins by saddling her with both reductive Hollywood tropes (As in Titanic and many other films "the poor" are exotically adaptable creatures, freer and happier than the upper-classes) and with a half-hearted subplot with Louis CK that never truly connects to the movie. The pressing question the movie fails to answer: If Ginger is a convenience and crutch for Jasmine, what exactly is Jasmine to Ginger? Hannah and Her Sisters is probably untoppable in this regard but couldn't the sibling relationships be clearer?
The problem may be that the movie has ceded all of itself to Hurricane Blanchett who doesn't share the scenes so much as spin madly at their center (less a flaw of performance than the nature of Jasmine's psychology). Just days later it's difficult to recall individual moments, not because they're repetitive (less a flaw of filmmaking than the nature of Jasmine's psychology) but because the past keeps intruding on the present and entirely overwhelming it.
In some troubling way, Blue Jasmine begins as a bastard progeny of Streetcar but morphs into a sour sibling of Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen, like Jasmine, may well be lost in conversation with himself now. Gil in Midnight in Paris managed to see delusional nostalgia for the trap it is and wrestle free, but Jasmine (and maybe Woody?) is weaker, less aware of her own culpability in her ruts and troubles. In the merciless finale, Jasmine only sees the past leaving little hope that she has any kind of future.
The Spectacular Now proves that not all YA novels are supernatural! The screen adaptation of the romantic drama about a high school senior (Miles Teller) who really loves his girls (Shailene Woodley and Brie Larson) and his booze (and not in that order) is well acted and charming. The Wolverine is another grimly sober superhero flick (shouldn't having super powers be more fun?) that wastes its Japanese setting and its rare female cast [Reviewed]. And Fruitvale Station continues on its probable march towards Oscar nominations [Reviewed] though now it has Blue Jasmine for company in that conversation.
Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.