When Jasmine's (Cate Blanchett) life and marriage to Hal (Alec Baldwin) begins to fall apart, the wealthy New York socialite decides to visit to her sister in San Francisco.
'Well, that was a bummer," a woman said to me as we waited by the elevator after a recent screening of Blue Jasmine. She was wide-eyed and seemed a little stunned, but then her features, stretched and waxy in the manner of New York City women of a certain age and zip code, made her expression tough to verify. 'I don’t think he’s ever gone this dark," she added in an offended tone. 'He" is of course Woody Allen, whom we had just watched put the Jasmine of the title (played by Cate Blanchett), a New York City woman of a certain age and zip code, through a grueling downfall. I mentioned Allen’s spade-black Match Point, which thrilled me back in 2005. My companion wasn’t convinced; she remembered Match Point as more of a comedy of manners. I shook my head. 'It was pretty dark."
Jasmine has lost everything, because it turns out Jasmine’s everything is saleable at cost.
I won’t compare the two films, except to mention that one ends with the ghastly lead character pleased and secure in his new, lavish life not despite but because of his grievous misdeeds, and the other ends as it begins—with a considerably less ghastly lead character stripped of her lavish life, and close to madness. I can understand my fellow moviegoer’s confusion. If she felt punished by Blue Jasmine, that may have been the point.
The movie, which follows Jasmine’s arrival and stay in San Francisco, where she is forced to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after her financier husband (Alec Baldwin) is indicted for fraud and commits suicide in prison. Jasmine has lost everything, because it turns out Jasmine’s everything is saleable at cost. Without her homes, her jewels, her cars, and her elite status, she’s a clothes hanger of a woman. (Clearly in shock, Jasmine isn’t shown mourning her husband; a subplot involving her son feels forced.) The echoes of Bernie and Ruth Madoff are clear. Watch this, Allen seems to say, as Jasmine enters Ginger’s rough-edged neighborhood, flop sweating through her ridiculous Chanel suit.
After settling into Ginger’s perfectly nice flat, Jasmine (whom, we are told many times, was born Jeanette) suffers a kind of cultural vertigo. Flashbacks to her previous, Upper East Side life hammer on a point that need only be made once: it’s different now. Where once she spent her days shopping and planning charity galas, now she is trapped making small talk with Ginger’s taciturn boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and must take a secretarial position in a dental office for cash.
Allen makes bafflingly little use of his singular West Coast setting, creating the impression that the North American center of lefty haute bourgeoisie feels more like an All in the Family rerun. Jasmine sloshes martinis and scolds sweet natured, compliant Ginger (the sisters were both adopted) about her life but mostly her choice of men, including her brutish ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay). Most of these scenes play like an awkward Mike Leigh-Woody Allen mash-up, but lack Leigh’s compassion, his attention to character and behavioural detail.
Instead the situation leads the story, though the sheer force of Blanchett’s will occasionally renders genuine emotion from worn out scenarios. Her extraordinary physicality is also an asset. In San Francisco she appears to be a creature almost freakishly out of its element: she’s taller, whiter, smoother, more beautiful—in almost every sense bigger than everyone else. An extended scene of Blanchett fighting through her boss’s overtures (then actually fighting him off) makes her humiliation deeply, horribly felt. When, in a flashback, Baldwin announces he’s leaving her for a ludicrously younger woman, Blanchett’s confusion staggers her, and a textbook scene manages to take the viewer down as well.
In these moments, a person tears through the porcelain veneer. In a sense the film and its heroine share the same problem: Allen doesn’t allow us to be more certain of Jasmine’s character than she is. Jasmine married young, and well; having sold her soul for the glamourous life, she must now piece together a sense of self. But when a wealthy cipher (Peter Sarsgaard) comes a-courting, Jasmine is relieved, even re-born (again). It’s at this point that her character’s impenetrability stops nagging and begins to actively work against what was until then only under suspicion of being a deeply simple-minded story. Her choices are hardly incredible, but that’s not enough to make us believe them.
Who is this woman and why watch her suffer? No great reason that I could see, though Blue Jasmine’s design is apparent enough. It’s that of a fable, and might have served quite well. Even Blue Jasmine’s hint of middle-class revenge fantasy has potential. Instead it’s mostly a bummer.