Let’s get right to it: Blue Jasmine is one of Woody Allen’s most bleak and dreary films in years. It also happens to be one of his best, which says much about where the old filmmaker’s strengths now lie. It’s been quite a while since he made a good straight comedy. Anybody remember Scoop? Didn’t think so. Nowadays, he fares better with wistful, pained nostalgia (Midnight in Paris) or by simply wallowing in the tragedies of life (Match Point).
Jasmine falls into the latter camp, and its bleakness makes for an often unsettling viewing experience. It’s a film that would be hard to unequivocally recommend – in the traditional role of the film critic – if not for a riveting lead performance by Cate Blanchett. As the title character, a recently divorced 40-ish New York socialite trying (and mostly) failing to start a new life in San Francisco, Blanchett has found the role of a lifetime. Her Jasmine is vulnerable, neurotic, and deluded – and yet still full of grace and strength. Allen makes great use of Blanchett’s versatility by cross-cutting between Jasmine’s romantic and professional travails in the Bay and the unraveling of her charmed life in New York. It is a full-scale fall from grace, and as Jasmine plays what could be her last hands at love and life, we cringe, sympathize, laugh, and cry. In other words, she is the most complex character Woody Allen has put on film in years.
Not that this is unexpected. Woody has a long, well-documented history of creating great roles for women. From Annie Hall to Hannah (and her sisters), he has shown a proclivity for capturing the complexity of woman – her strength and her vulnerability. Jasmine bears these traits, as well, but her journey has more gravitas than we are used to. This is not just a typically neurotic Upper East Side middle-aged heroine. As one wrong turn by Jasmine begets another, and she veers closer to a nervous breakdown, we suspect that her quirks and personality deficiencies may actually be symptoms of larger psychological problems. The trailers have portrayed Blue Jasmine as one of Woody’s comedies, but, as snippets of Jasmine’s troubled inner life peek through, you’ll have a moment when you realize the film is much closer to Interiors than, say, Mighty Aphrodite, and it’s possible that Jasmine won’t make it through this thing all right.
Is it too much of a stretch to say that Blue Jasmine is a work of feminism? At the very least, it’s a deeper exploration of the neurotic female than we are used to seeing from late-era Woody. You probably have to go all the way back to Husbands and Wives (1993!) to find a really strong, complex female character (although you could make a case for Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Jasmine has more strength and intelligence than anyone around her, but her sense of self has been eroded over the years. Her backstory emerges in bits and pieces: she quit college to marry, never bothered to get a job, and trusted her husband when he involved her in his shady dealings. Then as a divorcee in San Francisco, she is confronted with a series of shady men (Bobby Cannavale, Michael Stahlberg, and Louis C.K.), and when she finally finds one she connects with (Peter Sarsgard as a smart, cultured diplomat), she doesn’t trust herself to be honest with him and self-sabotages the relationship. It is a cautionary tale of what can happen to a woman who gives herself over completely – her money, her education, her sense of self – to a man. If we were being generous to Woody, we could consider Blue Jasmine a correction to the recent pattern of hastily-drawn women in his films.
For that, he should be commended, but Blanchett still deserves the lion’s share of the credit here. One of the reasons why Blue Jasmine is so engagingly hard to grasp is that her performance could work in any type of Woody film: romantic comedy, tragedy, or farce. She captures the humor and lightness in Jasmine’s fall, as well as the small indignities of her everyday existence. These are the kind of performances they make acting awards for, and if you think I am going on too much about it, you’ll understand why when you see it.
Still, both filmmaker and actress save their best work for the film’s closing. Without giving too much away, I’ll only say that it is a brave and challenging finale, akin to the ambiguous final shots of the Before Sunrise films, although with none of their whimsy. Be prepared to walk out feeling not so great about life but still with a smile on your face, knowing that Woody, whose artistic death has now been exaggerated several times, still has some vital work left in him.
My Rating: See it in the Theater