REVIEW: Blue Jasmine

12 08 2013

Woody Allen’s latest feature shows our most prolific filmmaker access a side of his writing seldom seen: dark and unsparingly grim tragedy.  I’ve seen all of his 48 films, and perhaps not since 1992’s “Husbands and Wives” has he taken such a bleak and hard-hitting look at the demons we battle and the struggles we face.  His “Blue Jasmine” is a modern “A Streetcar Named Desire” mixed in a cocktail with the Bernie Madoff scandal and washed down with a toxic mixture of alcohol and antidepressants.

It’s no stone-faced drama like “Match Point,” though.  There are still plenty of laughs to be had here, although they definitely don’t resemble the kind of humor you’d find in Allen’s early farces like “Bananas.”  Nor do they even take the shape of the clever wit of “Annie Hall” or even “Midnight in Paris.”  In “Blue Jasmine,” we chuckle as we cringe.  Almost all of our laughs are muffled as they come while we grit our teeth.

That’s because his protagonist, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine (formerly Jeanette, but that name wasn’t exciting enough), is slowly charting her own way to another complete mental breakdown.  She suffered her first one after her husband’s vast fraudulent financial empire collapses, leaving her penniless to fend for herself in the world.  Lost and not placated by her Xanax, she journeys cross-country to San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in the hopes of getting back on her feet.

But Jasmine quickly finds that she’s woefully underprepared to enter the workforce since she has no degree, dropping out of Boston University with a year left to marry Hal (Alec Baldwin).  Despite offers from Ginger’s circle of friends to help her find secretarial or wage labor, Jasmine remains defiant, unable to accept the reality that she is no longer among the privileged Park Avenue lot.  Her half-hearted effort to come to terms with her new social standing leads to clashes with her eventual employer, Michael Stuhlbarg’s genial dentist Dr. Flicker, and Ginger’s boyfriend, Bobby Cannavale’s unabashedly honest Chili.

Blue Jasmine

As Jasmine descends in social standing, so descends her sanity.  (She doesn’t help herself by chasing her meds with straight vodka; any more alcohol and she’d need an IV.)  Rather than face her new circumstances, she chooses to retreat into the appealing world of fantasy and memory.  Her delusions of grandeur and opulence begin bleeding into the painful present, resulting in plenty of stares as she often obliviously talks to herself in public.

Cate Blanchett’s fearless and unhinged performance makes Jasmine’s devolution into lunacy searingly real.  It’s so painful that we want to look away, but Blanchett has the fickle unpredictability of human psychosis nailed down so well that we are drawn into “Blue Jasmine” all the more with each passing minute.  It also helps that she’s given great dialogue and a fantastic journey charted by Woody Allen, one that’s less in line with his nebbish and nubile surrogates of late and more in the vein of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s brilliant deconstruction of the bitch in “Young Adult.”

Moreover, Allen’s script smartly parallels Jasmine’s neuroses, shifting abruptly between Jasmine’s Bay Area slumming and her New York high society entertaining.  As she drops in and out of two starkly different realities, so do we; the result is an effectively jarring experience that feels every bit as scattered as Jasmine’s mind.  Though “Blue Jasmine” might lack the intellectual depth of his “Crimes and Misdemeanors” as well as the thematic heft of a “Hannah and Her Sisters,” it’s still a distinct, worthwhile, and instantly memorable addition to the Woody Allen canon.  B+3stars

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