Woody Allen knows that sometimes it’s best just to throw characters into the deep end and see if audiences want to swim with them. By the time we meet his newest creation, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), she’s in full meltdown, barely holding it together with Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and enough self-delusion to power a third-party presidential campaign. Jasmine is barely in the door of her sister’s apartment before she’s registered titanic disappointment in everything she sees and reached for the Stoli. Sleeping on a pullout sofa in a shabby part of the Mission in San Francisco and looking for any job that will have her is not the kind of life she had envisioned for herself: “I can’t just do a menial job.” The gulf between what Jasmine thinks she is due and what she actually receives turns out to be a deep chasm that more than one unwise character gets lost in.
Through a series of artfully deployed flashbacks and some conversations between secondary characters that may as well be labeled “helpful exposition,” we discover a number of things about Jasmine. For one, that’s not her name. She changed it from Jeanette a while back. For another, she used to be married to Hamptons-rich operator Hal (Alec Baldwin, barely breaking a sweat with his cool armor of moneyed sleaze), who turned out to be a Bernie Madoff-like swindler. Thus Jasmine’s escape west from the ignominy of being forced, post-Hal, to live in Brooklyn; Blanchett’s delicious shudder at the memory suggesting a horror akin to being banished to a back alley in Peshawar.
This is all part of the roadshow tragedy that Jasmine imagines her life to be. She darts looks around at everyone in her new Bay Area life, from her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, trying too hard to make an American accent work) to the range of working-class comic types that make up her previous and current romances (Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K.) as though they were mere understudies, and poor ones at that. Like Blanche DuBois, Jasmine travels clouded in the gauzy romantic certainty that she is meant for better things, and better people. Eventually somebody will notice this, she is sure. Somebody will pick up the check. When she complains that “I’ve neglected everything … yoga, pilates…” there is not a scintilla of self-awareness.
As Jasmine, Blanchett creates the sort of masterfully nerve-shredded performance that made her such a caffeinated kick in The Aviator and I’m Not There. Buoyed on vodka and Xanax, she looks constantly on the verge of a screamingly catastrophic breakdown. It’s an acting job that too easily could have degenerated into look-at-me theatrics, the sort of thing that’s always a risk with playing Blanche types. (Blanchett actually took on that role in a 2009 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the film is littered with references to Tennessee Williams’ drama of delusion, particularly in Cannavale’s consciously Kowalski-like turn as a mouthy mechanic.) But Blanchett calibrates her Jasmine delicately, layering her in jittery, arrogant awkwardness that barely hides a yawning pit of madness. She’s a maddening character, through and through, but there’s enough pain registering in her eyes (how exactly Blanchett can deliver so many layers of regret and confusion through the slightest twitch of her eyelids is a mystery) that can leave you wincing with empathy.
Sour, mordant, and fitfully hilarious, Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s most substantial and fully realized film since 2005’s Match Point, but not necessarily his best in that time period. For sheer rhapsodic entertainment, his seriocomic travelogues Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris both come out easily ahead. There’s too much repetition in Ginger’s off-putting denseness and the blue-collar geniality of all her guys; the latter is a familiar problem with Allen, who likes to contrast flying-too-high types with more salt-of-the-earth folks but still gives the wealthy the advantage of personal complexity. But Allen holds fast to Jasmine’s crash-and-burn trajectory, greasing the wheels with enough quips to keep you mindful that this is primarily a comedy, but not enough so that you forget it’s a tragedy of the highest sort.