Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s latest effort, is one of his darkest films in recent years, but it is also one of his best constructed, offering a tour de force role for its manic heroine. The script, which takes its inspiration from Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, is not only a meditation on a life in disarray, but also on the wages of greed and the self-destructiveness of revenge. In Jasmine, Allen has created a protagonist who suffers from all the usual neuroses so prevalent in the director’s universe – mental instability, pill and alcohol abuse, complicated negative romances – but in this case Jasmine has hit rock bottom, and there is not a single chuckle in her sad downward spiral, nor is there the hint of redemption in the film’s bleak dénouement.
Jasmine, who is played with deep empathy by the incomparable Cate Blanchett, elicits our sympathy, but also terrifies us as she holds up a mirror to our (and society’s) willingness to purchase the “good life” with delusions, lies, and a numbing lack of moral compass.
Moreover, more than many other Allen films, the New York’s Upper East Side milieu that sustained Jasmine and her dishonest investment tycoon husband, Hal, is revealed to be less an urbane Oscar Wilde playground for the upper class and more a hollow universe populated by vacuous, rapacious individuals who carelessly destroy their families and their lives. In the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal, can Allen not be alluding to just that soulless kind of hubris? And in the revelation at the end of the movie of Jasmine’s bitter revenge against her philandering spouse – a phone call which precipitates the rest of their family tragedy – is Allen not musing on the acrimonious vindictiveness of his own breakup years ago with Mia Farrow?
Allen’s supporting cast of characters offers little in the way of balance or comfort. Jasmine’s sister, Ginger, whose severe lack of self esteem mires her in one destructive relationship after another, settles for the loutish Chili, a toned down version of Stanley Kowalski. And while Ginger maintains her sanity – which Jasmine does not – it is only because she has come to expect so very little from her life. The other men in the film from the callous Hal, to the ones Jasmine dates in San Francisco – the sexually harassing dentist and the seemingly ideal Dwight – are all interested in Jasmine only as a desirable object.
Allen directs tautly and dispassionately with less spontaneity or improvisation than in many of his past works. The production design by Santo Loquasto appropriately contrasts the opulent East of Jasmine’s privileged past with the run-down reality of her present in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.
The cast all turn in accomplished performances. Alec Baldwin is seductively insensitive as the swindling Hal; Sally Hawkins is touching, girlish, and street wise as Ginger. Andrew Dice Clay is fittingly lumpish as Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, and Bobby Cannavale is aggressively macho as thered-necked Chili, Ginger’s new lover. Peter Sarsgaard offers a romantic alternative as the tepid Dwight, Jasmine’s “gentleman caller,” and Alden Ehrenreich makes the most of his short scenes as Danny, Jasmine’s estranged son.
It is Cate Blanchett, however, who provides the dramatic core to the film; she is a Jasmine at once bewildered and scheming, wounded and cruel, wronged and vengeful. Like Blanche de Bois, she preserves a feminine allure even as she descends into the hell of her madness. It is a note perfect performance made even more memorable by the understated simplicity with which she inhabits the part.
Blue Jasmine is one of Allen’s best-crafted films in recent years, and if it does not offer the catharsis of so many of his other works, it does not fail to compel in its unsparing honesty. In a career spanning more than forty-five years, Woody Allen never fails to surprise and to provoke his audience.