"There's only so many traumas a person can stand before you take to the streets and talk to yourself," says the hilariously unhinged heroine of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, confessing what is essentially her unfortunate motto. You’d think Jasmine French has it all together, between her lofty accent, enviable grace, and elegant designer clothes. But a few minutes of small talk with this former New York socialite reveals what a total train wreck she really is. And while her story is thoroughly tragic, writer-director Allen and his stupendous ensemble make her movie deeply delightful and wonderfully funny.
Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine, whose journey begins on a flight to San Francisco, where she’ll be staying with her estranged sister. We know this because Jasmine is chatting with a stranger on the flight. But as this scene spills into next and another with Jasmine practically stalking the woman so she might finish her tale, it becomes very clear how desperate and lonely she is…and what a tenuous grasp she has on her sanity. This might sound like a setup better suited to a 1930s melodrama, but it proves the perfect staging ground for Allen’s latest dark comedy.
Jasmine was forced to abandon her beautiful Manhattan apartment and give up most of her wealth when her millionaire husband was arrested for some sort of Bernie Madoff-style scandal. Cast out by her fair-weather friends, she’s forced to move in with her divorced blue-collar sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), taking a cot in a small apartment crowded with two rambunctious young nephews and Ginger’s hovering grease-monkey boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Still, Jasmine tries to resurrect a new dream life for herself, even while reluctantly taking on a “menial” job at a dentist office and generally insulting everyone around her with her deeply ingrained snobbery.
As Jasmine struggles to make the best of her very bad situation, flashbacks flood her mind and inform us exactly how she went from the height of NYC society to scraping by in San Fran. What’s most remarkable—and what seems destined to get Blanchett an Oscar nod this winter—is that no matter how horrible a person these flashbacks reveal Jasmine to be, I still empathized with her. Maybe it was because I admire her tenacious optimism that maniacally seeks out a silver lining no matter what. Or maybe it’s that she made me laugh so damn much. Jasmine is so in need of a kind ear to hear her tale of woe that she will take one wherever she can get it, the stranger on the plane, the passerby on the street, her completely confused young nephews, or us the movie audience. Allen mocks her need by giving Jasmine only visibly disinterested listeners for her darkest confessions, and perhaps it’s this that binds us most to her. More than anything else, she just wants to be heard. Who hasn’t had a moment like that?
Blanchett shoulders this movie with a deft comedic touch and a trembling vulnerability that not only makes Jasmine unquestionably compelling, but also makes the actress a force to be reckoned with come Oscar time. But the whole cast is sensational. When I initially saw this ensemble also included Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale, Sally Hawkins, and Louis C.K., I was perplexed at how all these players would fit into one film, much less one Woody Allen film. But the San Francisco setting where most of the movie unfolds breaks Blue Jasmine away from the NYC/Allen standard of posh intellectuals and high brow kvetching. Glimpses of Jasmine’s time in NYC reveal her smooth talking husband (Baldwin who is perfectly cast), but then the blue-collar residents of San Francisco provide a sharp contrast and burst her above-it-all bubble.
Hawkins and Blanchett masterfully create a gnarled sister-bond that is barbed with resentment and rivalry, making their every interaction electric. As the overly friendly and happily low class Chili, Cannavale proves a fantastic foil to Blanchett’s cool exterior and posh posing. Plus, he brings some welcome sex appeal. Tough guy comic Clay is surprisingly solid as Ginger’s rightfully bitter ex-husband, and C.K.—aside from being expectedly funny—is shockingly sexy as her promising new love interest. Together this cast creates a vivid cast of characters whose exploits are both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Perhaps too prolific, Allen’s film career is checkered with hits and misses. But Blue Jasmine offers what he’s most loved for: ridiculous yet relatable characters, whip-smart dialogue, and sidesplitting social humor. And it does it in a fresh setting to boot, which gives it an unpredictable air. Like many movies this year Blue Jasmine, but Allen is rare in knowing just how to take full advantage of them. This movie is bright and bitingly funny, tender, and a bit tragic. It’s hands down one of Allen’s best ever.