I, unlike quite a few cinephiles out there, am not too familiar with the work of Woody Allen. Other than the few I have seen (Annie Hall and Midnight in Paris), I am largely unfamiliar with his large body of work other than what I’ve read about online. What I do know is that Woody Allen seems to be experiencing a sort of artistic renaissance, as his more recent films have been both financially successful and critically well received, including and especially his latest film, Blue Jasmine.
Cate Blanchett stars as Jeanette Francis (though she prefers the name “Jasmine”) a New York socialite who moves from her wealthy, well to do life to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after the suicide of her incarcerated husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), a smooth talking, unfaithful Bernie Madoff-esque swindler. Jasmine’s attempts to pick herself up and build a new life for herself are complicated by her self centered, holier than thou attitude, her complete lack of knowledge of how the world works for those who have to actually work for a living and her not so thinly veiled and progressively worsening slide into madness.
Blue Jasmine is first and foremost a character study, a slice of life meant to peek into these people’s sad little lives. While it does feature several comedic moments, mostly comprised of Jasmine’s horrified reactions to her new, less glamorous surroundings and her frequent asides describing her old life to everyone she meets, this is first and foremost a drama about a woman whose life and psyche have fallen into disarray.
Unlike some of his other films, Woody Allen’s direction is devoid of overly stylistic flourishes, like split screen or voice over narration. His more subdued direction suits this film perfectly, allowing the actors and the gorgeously photographed city of San Francisco to own the screen at all times. The same can be said of his Oscar nominated script which, while splendidly written as per usual, didn’t stand out or produce and particularly memorable one-liners. His dialogue was more naturalistic, which gave the story and it’s characters a sense of authenticity.
Cate Blanchett has been showered with accolades for her work in this movie and deservedly so. She is marvelous, a perfect storm of energetic, frenzied dysfunction. Jasmine is completely over the top and hammy compared to the other characters, but that is entirely the point. Unlike the other characters, Jasmine is severely untethered from reality, almost appearing as though she’s in a play that only she is aware of. Her multiple asides describing her previous life feel less like genuine communication than epic soliloquies befitting her spiritual cousin, Blanche DuBois.
Despite that, Blanchett’s performance avoids turning Jasmine into a caricature, focusing instead on making her a fully fleshed out, three dimensional character. In every scene, Blanchett surprises by peeling back layer after layer, showing us a woman who can be glamorous, delusional, inconsiderate, vulnerable, sexy and even downright unhinged. What’s even more amazing is that no matter how ungrateful and despicable she is, there are moments where you can’t help but feel sympathy for Jasmine. Blanchett is widely considered to be the frontrunner for Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards and it’s easy to see why.
Sally Hawkins’ excellent performance as Ginger, Jasmine’s blue-collar sister, is another highlight of the film. What could have been a one-note turn becomes anything but in Hawkins’ hands. She infuses Ginger with a soft-spoken sweetness and a tough, earthy charm. It’s a winning combination. She was also nominated for an Oscar for this film and I couldn’t be happier.
The supporting cast also deliver stellar work all around, particularly Bobby Cannavale’s turn as Chilli, Ginger’s boyfriend. Even though Jasmine frequently refers to Chilli as a drunken loser, Cannavale’s work says otherwise. Despite a foul temper and a penchant for drinking, he manages to steer away from the typical “drunk deadbeat boyfriend” trope and make him an actual person, never beyond the audience’s sympathies. This is showcased especially well in a climactic scene at the supermarket between him and Ginger. You can’t help but feel sorry for him in that moment.
In a short, but no less memorable role, legendary stand up comedian Andrew Dice Clay does great work as Auggie, Ginger’s ex-husband and a victim of Hal’s illegal dealings. Clay infuses Auggie with a deep-seated bitterness that haunts the screen whenever he isn’t there. As Hal, Jasmine’s ex-husband, Alec Baldwin oozes snaky charisma as only Alec Baldwin can. Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard are equally good as the men that have affairs with Hawkins and Blanchett’s characters respectively.
While I can’t account for how it stands amongst Woody Allen’s entire body of work, I can say that Blue Jasmine is a strong film bolstered by a great script and absolutely terrific performances.