'Blue Jasmine': Performers shine in Allen's latest
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
It's a bit of a mystery why Woody Allen's latest movie, "Blue Jasmine," plays as well and as satisfyingly as it does. Looked at from an objective remove, it really doesn't deserve to. Writer-director Allen has told interviewers that the movie was inspired by a story his wife told him about a former socialite acquaintance of hers who stumbled down quite a few rungs of her social ladder, with dire consequences. But the story Allen spun out of the personal anecdote bears a pretty pronounced resemblance to a well-known and arguably iconic piece of American literature, theater AND cinema, which is "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Check it out: Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, an adopted child who long ago changed her first name from a more prosaic "J" name. She's had some trouble, which we learn the full details of over the course of the movie. But as "Blue Jasmine" opens she's jabbering away in the first-class compartment of a plane flying from New York to San Francisco. At the end of her lifeline, with nowhere else to turn, the once-luxuriant Jasmine is about to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), also adopted, and now living a hardscrabble but sometimes fulfilled existence in the City by the Bay. The variant of a Stella-and-Blanche dynamic is supplemented by not one but several potential Stanley Kowalskis: Ginger's ultra-lumpen ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), her somewhat more frantic current boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and the ever so slightly more polished but considerably more genteel potential new guy, Al (Louis C.K.). In a sense, these figures are red herrings, at least as far as the "Streetcar" analogies are concerned. There's no sexual intrigue between any of them and the tetchy, at-loose-ends Jasmine, because this movie is not a story of anarchic sexuality and its destructive power. It is, rather, a knottily plotted character study that shows Jasmine falling apart while ticking down to the reason she is likely not going to be able to pull herself together. The reason being that old Freud-and-Allen standby, capital-G guilt.
The movie diverges from its "Streetcar" roots with a largely well-constructed flashback structure. Sequences depicting Jasmine's various struggles (which involve not just her sister and her boyfriends and her kids but also, briefly, a menial job and unwelcome advances from her boss there) alternate with scenes from her past life, a privilege-laden marriage to financier Hal (Alec Baldwin), who turns out to have been a crook of major and especially venal proportions. (Jasmine's former brother-in-law Augie still nurses a major resentment against Hal and Jasmine because among the losses Hal's thievery engendered was a windfall that Augie invested instead of starting his own business.) As Jasmine begins a new relationship with a haughty but seemingly sweet diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard) under dangerously false pretenses, the scenes from her marriage reveal more about her own complicity in Hal's downfall than she acknowledges in her dealings with those closest to her, and the matter comes to a nasty head in a final confrontation with her estranged stepson (Alden Ehrenreich, very vivid in a brief role).
As much as Allen here dots his script with somewhat anachronistic cultural referents and situations, "Blue Jasmine" doesn't feel quite as out of time as many of his recent non-comedic films have. And while there are lapses here and there, particularly concerning the actual time frame of both the contemporary scenes and the flashbacks, Allen's cross-cutting construction is largely solid and engaging. What really sells "Blue Jasmine" is the acting. While Blanchett has in fact recently appeared in a highly acclaimed stage production of "Streetcar," she gives this sick, suffering woman of delicacy an edge that's convincingly New York Society rather than Old South. And the supporting players are splendid, especially Clay, who adapts his roughneck comedian persona to his not entirely unsympathetic character with admirable attention to detail. In combination with this, the assured pacing, sharp dialogue and, yes, even occasionally pertinent observations the movie offers on money and class make this a Woody Allen drama where the assets make you want to ignore the imperfections.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.