Mark one down in the win column for the prolific Woody Allen. A man whose directing career spans more than forty-five years and close to that many pictures, the New Yorker’s filmography is understandably a somewhat patchy affair, particularly in recent years, where strong works like Midnight in Paris and Match Point intermingle with far more forgettable entries including Cassandra’s Dream, last year’s To Rome With Love, or the astoundingly overrated Vicki Christina Barcelona. Thankfully, Blue Jasmine belongs well and truly amongst the former. Insightful, squirmingly funny and boasting an absolutely unmissable performance from first time Allen collaborator Cate Blanchett (The Hobbit), the film is already being hailed, and rightfully so, as one of the director’s best.
Blanchet plays Jasmine, a snobby, sheltered, enormously wealthy New York socialite who suffers a nervous breakdown after her philandering husband Hal (Alec Baldwin; TV’s 30 Rock) is indicted on counts of investment fraud. The film begins with her forced to move into her working class sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins; Happy-Go-Lucky) cramped San Francisco apartment – much to the chagrin of Ginger’s loud-mouthed fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale; Lovelace). As Jasmine struggles to get herself together, her present day hell of pills, booze, screaming nephews and non-designer clothes is juxtaposed against her life with Hal through a series of flashbacks, as it’s slowly revealed how exactly her downfall came about.
Although Allen is perhaps most frequently associated with his “earlier, funnier films”, the truth is that his best pictures, like Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and the forequoted Stardust Memories, blend comic moments with more serious stuff. Blue Jasmine recalls Hannah in particular; the sisterly tension between the good natured Ginger and the selfish, psychologically precarious Jasmine proves rich dramatic fodder, as well as offering plenty of opportunities for Allen’s acerbic observational wit. The skewering of the privileged, the pretentious and the pseudo-intellectual has always been the writer-director’s forte; here, we laugh at Jasmine’s obvious discomfort during an unplanned double date with one of Chili’s uncouth buddy, gape at her decision to fly first class despite her massive debt, and wait with gleeful anticipation during the flashbacks for her oblivious, entitled lifestyle to crash down around her ears.
Another trademark of a Woody Allen film is a quality cast, and Blue Jasmine is no exception. Brit Sally Hawkins puts on a West Coast drawl and is immensely likable as the unpretentious Ginger. Bobby Cannavale and comedian Andrew Dice Clay are classless – but well intentioned – as her new beau and bitter ex-husband, respectively, while Louis C.K. (TV’s Louie) has daggy charm as yet another competitor for her affections. Alec Baldwin, meanwhile, is smugness incarnate as Hal, although is probably still more desirable than the only new man in Jasmine’s life: her nebbish, inappropriate San Fransisco boss, played with delightfully awkward creepiness by the talented Michael Stuhlbarg.
But as strong as the supporting players are, they all fade out in comparison to Blanchett. Delivering possibly the best performance of her career, the actress’ work as Jasmine is a jaw-dropping display of frazzled nerves and martini stained self-delusion. It’s no easy task playing someone as narcissistic as Jasmine, but Blanchett finds just the right line between pitiable and contemptible, and keeps your eyes glued to the screen with the boldness of her work. Plenty of comparisons have been made between Blue Jasmine and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. And while Allen’s tale is still a decidedly lighter affair, Jasmine is every bit a Blanche DuBois.