By Melissa Agar
Blue Jasmine (Sony Pictures Classics, 2013) – Director: Woody Allen. Writer: Woody Allen. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, & Louis CK. Color, 98 minutes.
My pop culture love affair with Woody Allen may be one of the longest in my life. I have vague memories of being a child and watching his movies on the Sunday morning matinee. These were his older, “funnier” movies, like Take the Money and Run that were silly enough for a child to cling to. My film sensibilities grew along with Allen’s. Few films inspired me more in my adolescence than Annie Hall (somewhere out there is a junior high school photo of me wearing a tie ala Annie), and seeing Crime and Misdemeanors my freshman year of college not only challenged my thinking but it also helped introduce me to one of my lifelong best friends. Being an Allen fan in a small Midwestern town, though, is not easy. His movies rarely show up in my local multiplex, so it often becomes necessary to drive an hour or more if I’d like to see his movies on the big screen. There’s no denying that Allen’s track record in the past couple of decades has been a little spotty. For every brilliant film like Match Point or Midnight in Paris, there have been duds like To Rome with Love and Anything Else. The few things I’d heard about Blue Jasmine, though, indicated to me that it just might be worth the drive to see it. I’m so glad I invested that time.
Blue Jasmine is the story of two sisters – Jasmine (Blanchett) and Ginger (Hawkins). The women were both adopted as infants and raised together, growing into complete opposites, lending some credence to the idea of nature over nurture. Jasmine is a cool, narcissistic snob who drapes herself in Gucci and Hermes even though her husband’s shady financial dealings have wiped her out financially. Ginger is a spunky working class girl, perfectly content with her small San Francisco apartment, job working as a grocery store clerk, and romance with Chili (Cannavale), a tough talking and, often volatile, mechanic.
Because Jasmine has fallen on hard times, she is forced to stay with her sister, but that doesn’t stop her from passing judgment on Ginger’s every move, particularly her relationship with Chili. Through a series of flashbacks that intertwine with the main narrative, we learn of Jasmine’s past – her relationship with husband Hal (Baldwin), her complicity in his financial schemes, her involvement in encouraging Ginger and then-husband Augie (Clay) to invest all of their money with Hal, an investment which left Ginger and Augie completely broke. Jasmine begins piecing her life together in the midst of her own emotional and mental instability, trying to find some direction now that being a Park Avenue matron is off the table.
Blue Jasmine marks a sort of return to form for Allen. For nearly a decade, Allen set his films throughout Europe, abandoning his beloved New York to set stories in London, Barcelona, Rome, and Paris. Here, he returns stateside, splitting his narrative between the present in San Francisco and the past in New York. His San Francisco scenes have a sort of European quality to them, though, and it is clear that his time in Europe has influenced his direction in terms of staging and art direction. He fills these scenes evocative of Europe, though, with distinctly American characters like Ginger and Chili who talk with tough, brassy American accents full of passion and angst. (The irony here, of course, is that Hawkins is British and plays perhaps the most American character in the film.) His New York scenes lack that sort of affection that marked his previous odes to New York, particularly Manhattan. His New York is much colder, more distant, much like Jasmine herself. In fact, his treatment of both cities is symbolic of the women those cities represent – Jasmine’s New York is cold and full of secrets and distrust while Ginger’s San Francisco is a little rough on the outside but full of heart.
Much attention will surely be paid over the next couple months to Blanchett’s portrayal of Jasmine. It is, to be frank, a breathtaking performance. If she is not nominated for an Oscar, I will be stunned. The tightrope she walks between Jasmine’s delusional confidence and nervous breakdowns is gorgeous to behold. She can say more with a look than many actors can say with actual words. Jasmine is not a particularly likable character – she is downright cruel at times, particularly to kindhearted Ginger – but there is still this vulnerability beneath her cruelty that Blanchett manages to channel and allow the audience to feel a certain amount of sympathy particularly when we see her inevitable crash coming long before she does.
My hope is that equal attention is paid to Hawkins. At this point, Hawkins is not nearly as recognizable a face and name as Blanchett. She has starred in several independent movies and won the Golden Globe five years ago for her role in Happy-Go-Lucky, a quirky little British film. This film could introduce her to a wider American audience, and she deserves it. Ginger could easily be a stereotype – the working class girl with the heart of gold – but Hawkins brings tremendous complexity to Ginger as she begins to question her identity under Jasmine’s imperious glare. Late in the film, she launches on an affair with Al (CK), a sensitive stereo installation expert who lavishes her with compliments and attention. The way Hawkins’s face lights up in those moments, basking in such praise from a man, is heartbreaking.
After the tedium that was last year’s To Rome with Love, Allen is clearly back to form with Blue Jasmine, a complex tale of redemption that still manages to entertain and amuse. It is refreshing to see that even at 77 years old, Allen is still able to play with narrative structure and find new and inventive stories to tell. It’s worth the duds to find gems like this. Blue Jasmine was definitely worth the time investment and will surely be a force to be reckoned with come Oscar season.