Jeanette “Jasmine” French is a solipsist. If something in her universe does not revolve around her, does not worship her, it must be punished for even daring to recognize another sun in the sphere. She is used to life on a pedestal, everything she could want at her beck and call, and is so warped by the ongoing worship that when everything falls apart, she is totally rudderless. She tries and tries to reestablish herself, but in the end, all she can do is scream in the street. And she can’t even find anyone to listen.
Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is a deliberately theatrical piece, borrowing the general plot set-up (a rich, pampered older sister goes to stay with her down-to-earth sister and said sister’s loutish boyfriend) and overall feel from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Allen has great fun with that most actorly effect from the stage, the monologue, as Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine has a tendency to burst into over-the-top, Blanche DuBois-esque monologues, while around her everyone struggles to react to this totally out-of-place creature that has unexpectedly crashed into their normal world. It’s a wonderfully comic effect that Blanchett plays for both humor and horror as you realize that this woman is completely losing her mind. It never quite reaches bathos (or even really pathos), but by the end, you realize you’ve watched the total Greek-tragedy destruction of a woman who pretended she had everything she wanted, and when things didn’t work out, burned everything down.
This really is Cate Blanchett’s show. It’s a daring, nervy, deliberate trainwreck of a performance as Jasmine barely, by the skin of her teeth, keeps things together, whether sneering at Bobby Cannavale’s working-class boozer, trying to dissuade an amorous Michael Stuhlbarg, or seducing a besotted Peter Sarsgaard. The range she demonstrates, whether as the queen of her world when still with Alec Baldwin, or in her lowest, utterly abandoned moments, is incredible. Blanchett and Allen never let you fully sympathize with Jasmine, always letting you see her selfishness and contempt for everyone who is, quite simply, beneath her. They’re well aware of the humor in her ever-descending spiral, and yet there is something truly horrible in seeing a woman fall apart so totally. And she does try, in her own way (though her plans to “educate herself” are definitely played for comedy and thrown by the wayside, as Jasmine completely would, when Sarsgaard comes along), to reestablish herself, but it’s obvious she can’t. She’s too far gone into herself.
Sally Hawkins is great as Blanchett’s (adopted, as both keep reminding us) sister Ginger. And while she seems to end up happier, it’s an ending that, in its own way, is just as tragic as Jasmine’s. Hawkins does a great job of playing both weakness and strength – like Jasmine, she does want to better herself (maybe in a more genuine way) and is willing to bury past resentments, but there is that inner weakness as well, old grudges that will boil out. The recurring lines about bad genes, and the apparent family joke that her mother preferred Jasmine, take on increasing tinges of bitterness as she tries to deal with the hurricane effect of Jasmine crashing back into her life.
As for the men of the film, there is some subtext to be unpacked about Jasmine trying to drive Ginger towards a “nicer man” and piling onto Sarsgaard the first chance she gets. Do they need “nice men”? Or is that just an excuse for not getting their own lives together and not being responsible for taking care of themselves? Is the film agreeing with Jasmine? The “nice man” Ginger meets turns out to be not-so-nice and she ends up with another jerk but that’s what apparently makes her happy, while the film as a whole seems to argue that Jasmine is ultimately responsible for her own destruction – blinding herself to what she doesn’t want to see, then destroying everything when she’s forced to. Bobby Cannavale is terrific as Chili, Ginger’s loutish beau, who has no patience for Jasmine’s airs and how she wrecks his plans (in his way, he’s as possessive and demanding as she is, and Ginger is inevitably caught between them). There is a real sense of danger to Cannavale’s work, a real anger and passion burning underneath his exterior that explodes in increasingly uncomfortable ways throughout the film. Alec Baldwin is perfectly smug and seductive as Hal, while Alden Ehrenreich does very, very nice work in just a few short scenes. Peter Sarsgaard is also strong as Jasmine’s apparent savior, but he is partially a device – he is a goal that Jasmine can aspire to, and then be rejected by, once he’s clued in to the real Jasmine. There’s not much there there, so to speak.
Two of the most Allenesque actors ever born, Michael Stuhlbarg and Louis C.K., sadly have very little to do. Stuhlbarg’s sexually aggressive dentist doesn’t really affect the plot (there’s not much that would change by him being removed, aside from the ongoing humor of Jasmine trying to work a menial job). Louis C.K. does get one hilarious scene with Hawkins that basically feels like Allen decided to guest-direct an episode of “Louie,” but otherwise is just the “nice guy” who turns out to be not-so-nice…offscreen. And Andrew Dice Clay…he’s mainly asked to play working-class anger, but he’s a much stiffer performer than everyone else, and when he has some big, big moments to play, they’re not as effective as perhaps they could be.
Allen keeps a nimble command of the tone of the film, never letting it go too over-the-top while expertly mining it for humor. He’s playing in some wonderfully acidic fields here. Also, the film is expertly paced. Allen keeps it moving along nimbly, with a strong eye for how out-of-place Jasmine is in Ginger’s world. Techs are fine but often subtle, though Allen’s use of music remains a highlight, as always.
Ultimately, Jasmine is at the center of this universe. But it’s not the universe she wants. For Jasmine, this is the apocalypse, but to everyone else it’s ultimately irrelevant. Allen and Blanchett are in fine satirical form here, and drawing on that more theatrical mode is perfect for Jasmine, who views herself as the heroine of some grand romance, who will better herself, who will again rise to higher things, who will by hook or crook get herself back on the pedestal and get herself the perfect life she deserves.
She won’t. And no one cares.