Saturday, July 27, 2013
Please don’t be put off by hearsay that “Blue Jasmine” is one of Woody Allen’s “serious” films. Rest assured that while “Jasmine” offers a breathtakingly credible portrayal of a woman on the verge, it also provides copious quantities of huge laughs.
This is no turgid “Stardust Memories” or tone-deaf “Shadows and Fog.” Rather, it’s another masterwork by the movies’ best writer for women (still), brought to searing life by Cate Blanchett in the performance of a lifetime.
Blanchett plays Jasmine, a Ruth Madoff figure who, as the film opens, has seen the government confiscate virtually every possession she and her financier husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) owned. Through extensive flashbacks, we get a sense of Jasmine’s life heretofore beyond the luxe trappings: a year away from her college degree before she married, certain of Hal’s fidelity even as he philanders his way up and down Manhattan, curious as to the legal and ethical concerns of Hal’s advisers but willing to drop the subject when he shushes her.
As she arrives at the San Francisco apartment of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) – both had been adopted as children – she has little left but addictions to Xanax and Stoli martinis with a lemon twist. Which explains why Ginger is surprised to see her towing Louis Vuitton suitcases and hearing she flew into town in style. Jasmine: “Stop asking me how I bought a first-class ticket – I just DID!” Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) had invested their nest egg ($200,000 in lottery winnings) with Hal, and wondered as Hal’s empire unraveled how much Jasmine had known of his wrongdoing.
Still, the sweet and forgiving Ginger takes Jasmine in and gives her a place from which to rebuild. Not a quiet place, mind you – Jasmine’s always coming out of her room to pour more Stoli and shush Ginger’s kids and her new boyfriend Chili (a classic Woody name), and just about anything anyone says or does makes her reach for her pillbox. How she’ll ever make a new life she doesn’t know; getting her interior decorator’s certificate seems as far away as the anthropology major she left behind: “First I have to take a class to learn how to use the computer, and then I have to take the design class online.” Blanchett has a way of making this course of study sound as daunting as a doctorate in applied physics.
Jasmine is a woman who has lost her identity – not once but several times. Now, she’s just lost, apt at any moment to disappear into a memory, talk to herself (her prattle a collection of snippets from old party tapes), or stare off into space. She takes a job (humiliating to her, perfectly great-sounding to Ginger) as a receptionist at a dentist’s office, and can barely contain herself as patients schedule and re-schedule appointments while checking their phones: “You’re going to have to settle on a date and time, all right?” The dentist, Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), develops an attraction to Jasmine, and begins to tell her of his feelings. Jasmine cuts him off: “I’m sorry, do you have the time?” It’s a serious question.
We’ve always known Cate Blanchett has talent, but audiences often haven’t felt an emotional connection to her. Here, we do. Jasmine is the sort of showpiece role a great actress waits for her whole life, often in vain. She’s a person who at each stage finds something to fill the moment – cardio, Pilates, and trips to Saint-Tropez during the boom years; later, booze, meds, reminiscence and idle chatter – rather than allow herself to contemplate the horror of the emptiness of her life. If Blanchett faces serious competition for this year’s Oscar, someone will have to give a performance for the ages.
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Sally Hawkins’ name mentioned as well. She turns in the best work of her career, bringing depth and shading to a character who seems simple and happy-go-lucky on the surface but may simply be more adept than anyone at stifling her resentments and appreciating what nice things she does have. Jasmine asks Ginger to accompany her to a party thrown by a friend she’s made at her computer class, where Al (Louis C.K.), a sound system installer, asks Ginger to dance and musters the courage to tell her she’s pretty. Hawkins looks at him as if he’s just handed her the Hope Diamond.
In closing, I don’t want to lose sight of how uproariously funny “Blue Jasmine” is; at times, I and the two friends I saw it with almost came out of our seats. Woody Allen has written his best (smartest yet least over-intellectual) script since “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” In one flashback, after Jasmine and Hal have shown Ginger and Augie their penthouse and shunted them off to the Marriott, Jasmine reclines in her bubble bath, exhausted: “I’m definitely taking tomorrow OFF!” But the laughs begin in the very first scene, of Jasmine talking the ear off her fellow first-class passenger. The older woman’s husband collects her at the baggage claim and asks, “Who was that?” “I don’t know,” she says. “She was talking to herself and I made the mistake of saying, ‘What?’”