Blanchett played Blanche DuBois in a staging of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Now, in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” she updates the role considerably, and sets herself up for an Oscar nomination in the process. Though surrounded by a fine supporting cast, she is the absolute center of attention, and attending to this multi-layered performance pays off handsomely.
We first meet her in the first-class cabin of a New York to San Francisco flight, where Jasmine (nee Jeanette) is babbling away to a captive seatmate, wildly oversharing. This is one of the few funny moments in what has been misperceived as a comedy or a satire on the privileged class. All the marks of wealth and status are there: the designer shoes and clothes, the slightly snobbish airs, the sense of entitlement. We almost expect her to be met by a limo at the airport.
But Jasmine has lost her status, has had to leave her spacious Fifth Avenue and Hamptons existence. No longer a wealthy socialite who does lunch and supports charities, she is now an ex-shoe saleswoman, kicked out of her Brooklyn apartment, forcing to rely upon the kindness of — if not strangers — then of her estranged sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), an almost-too-perfect foil for Jasmine. Their relationship bears long-standing animosities and grudges, thinly papered over by Ginger’s charity in taking Jasmine in just until she “gets her bearings.”
Almost instantly, Jasmine takes a disliking to Ginger’s would-be live-in suitor, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), the Stanley Kowalski parallel. It’s mutual, mechanic Chili resenting both Jasmine’s hauteur and the fact that her fraudulent, philandering ex-husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), has brought financial and marital ruin upon Ginger, who is now clerking in a grocery store. The tension among the three main characters, like that in Williams’ classic drama, is palpable, eliciting pathos, rather than laughter.
Writer/director Allen shows how far Jasmine has fallen through a series of flashbacks, often triggered by some stray remark in the present action. The device is generally effective as a way to fill the back story, but it sometimes wears thin, as do the occasionally stagey encounters of the characters. The contrast between her life on the two coasts is brilliantly drawn by the settings, costumes, and attitudes of the denizens. But New York emerges as the place of deceit and denial, embodied in the Bernie Madoffesque financial chicanery of Hal. When Jasmine carries her own lies and self-deception into San Francisco, her East Coast past catches up with her in some brutal revelations. We feel both sympathy and contempt for her, but no satisfaction at the end, when she cannot rely even on strangers.
Allen has claimed that he directed Blanchett by turning on the camera and getting out of her way. If so, it proves a wise choice. Especially in her frequent close-ups, she provides a textbook demonstration of screen acting, her face and body conveying all we need to know about her widening internal fissures. Jasmine is another in Allen’s long string of extraordinary female characters, dating back all the way back to 1977’s “Annie Hall,” and Blanchett contributes one of the strongest realizations of the complex “Allen woman.”
There is much to admire in “Blue Jasmine,” appropriately rated “PG-13” and probably lost on most teenagers, anyway. The jazzy blues score that opens, punctuates, and closes the film provides a wry, wise commentary on the action. Allen’s understated use of the camera and his ongoing collaboration with film editor Alisa Lepselter show how a film doesn’t need to have special effects to impress the viewer.
The movie has been out for a while, and is actually building momentum at the box office, I suspect through word of mouth about Blanchett’s performance. If you can’t find it locally, watch for the DVD to appear, likely around Oscar nomination time. It’s worth the wait.