Despite coming comparatively late in Woody Allen’s career, his new drama Blue Jasmine — set in San Francisco, with quite a few flashback scenes shot in his beloved New York City — is easily one of my favorite films that he’s made in two decades.
Starring Cate Blanchett in the title role, Blue Jasmine charts the odyssey of a woman who goes from rags to riches to destitution and mental instability. She was adopted and raised by conventional working-class parents, took on the name Jasmine, reinvented herself as a stylish upper-crust type, married wealthy financier Hal, and lived the good life in Manhattan until Hal turned out to be another Bernie Madoff. With her husband and meal ticket under indictment, Jasmine is stripped of most worldly possessions and shunned by her former friends in high society, so she heads to San Francisco to seek shelter with her unpretentious sister Ginger — also an adoptee. Ginger is living as a single mother of two boys after having spilt from her coarse working-class husband, Augie, but Jasmine’s sense of entitlement, neediness and serious emotional problems are draining and distracting for Ginger, who is trying to make a life for herself with her new boyfriend, a mechanic named Chili.
As Jasmine’s past — good and bad — haunts her, circumstances push her closer to the edge. Ginger tries to keep it together when her sister’s presence undermines the relationship with Chili, but the pressures take their toll. At the end of her rope, Jasmine meets a man who she thinks might be the answer to all her problems.
There is a dark humor to Blue Jasmine, as Allen seems to take a sort of glee at the trials and tribulations of the smug users and well-to-do rip-off artists that sometimes populate the upper reaches of the social order. Meanwhile, he sees tragedy in Jasmine’s failed aspirations and her fall from graciousness, if not grace. And though he hasn’t been among them in years, Allen shows a certain affection and sympathy for the no-nonsense scramblers and strivers and strugglers on the lower end of the economic scale.
Some of the plot recalls aspects of Paul Mazursky’s dramedy An Unmarried Woman, starring Jill Clayburgh, even as it addresses certain topical issues and has that piquant Allen humor embedded in its cinematic DNA. That said, a wonderful, talented cast including a couple of unlikely actors in pivotal roles helps Blue Jasmine immeasurably. Aussie-born Blanchett (Elizabeth, Lord of the Rings, The Aviator) and British native Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky, An Education) as American adopted sisters are spot-on with Jasmine’s patrician accent less of a stretch, but Hawkins absolutely nailing Ginger’s Noo-Yawk tough-gal accent. Alec Baldwin — whose significant movie and TV credits are too numerous to list — is the perfect blend of oily and suave as Jasmine’s scheming husband, Hal. The ever-able Peter Sarsgaard (An Education, TV’s The Killing) is just right as Dwight, a man who might very well be Jasmine’s salvation. Respected Broadway and film vet Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent, Win Win) is in his sweet spot as Chili. But the real surprises of the bunch are two men best known as edgy and sometimes vulgar stand-up comedians: Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay. C.K.’s contribution is relatively small; he’s a believable, everyday schlub who tries to woo Ginger when she’s on the rebound from Chili. On the other hand, Clay — whose public profile has been somewhat diminished since his controversial heyday as a shock comic in the ’80s and ’90s — is terrific, honest and affecting in a significant part as Ginger’s estranged, bitter ex-husband hoping to stay a father to his kids despite custody issues. Whether in painful flashbacks with Blanchett, Baldwin, and Hawkins or in a crucial scene with Blanchett and Sarsgaard, Clay holds his own among excellent actors and delivers legitimate emotional impact.
People can argue all they want about Allen — the man and his behavior in the realm of interpersonal relations. They can question his actions, defend him and denigrate him, but it never impedes my ability to appreciate, admire and even marvel at his career as a comedian, writer, and filmmaker. If we can separate ourselves from the biographical and sensational aspects of Allen’s life in the public eye and just look at his movies, it should be apparent that the artist is genius-level with a prodigious and often brilliant body of work in cinema. His filmography stretches from the 1960s to the current release of Blue Jasmine, which is, I believe, the 45th film Allen has directed for theatrical release. (Don’t Drink the Water, done for television in 1994, would increase the total to 46.) Along the way, there were Oscars for Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and 2011’s Midnight in Paris, which garnered an Academy Award for Allen’s screenplay.
Allen has starred in many of the films he makes, but shows up less and less these days. In fact, what I believe to be his three best movies of the past decade — Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and the aforementioned Midnight in Paris — don’t include him on screen at all. The same goes for Blue Jasmine.
As much as I’ve always admired Allen the performer, he isn’t missed when he makes a film as sure-handed and affecting as Blue Jasmine.