Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)

After the sensory overload of a dozen glossy, pretentious, affective commercials (I could practically hear Don Draper pitching each of them to me) and a half dozen more trailers, white Windsor titles appeared over a black background and an old recording of a jazz song played. If Allen’s trademark opening credits were something of a calm after the storm of the cinema preshow, a Woody Allen comedy in the summer is something of a happy retreat from the excesses of blockbuster filmmaking. I like my superheroes and action movies, but it’s nice to see a movie about characters and dialogue every now and then, and if that’s the selling point of a Woody Allen comedy, then Blue Jasmine succeeds.

Allen’s latest is also a fascinating film about the precarious border between denial and delusion, and their relationships to pride and wealth. Early in the film, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) arrives at her sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) modest apartment in San Francisco; Jasmine is broke, agitated, exhausted, and perhaps on the verge of (later we find out in recovery from) a mental breakdown. Jasmine complains that she doesn’t know what to do, and then about how bad the food in first class was. Her sister calls her on her disconnect. If she’s so broke, how could she afford first class? But in Jasmine’s mind, economy was never even an option.

Jasmine’s attempts in San Francisco — to get along with her working-class sister and her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), to work as a dental receptionist, and to complete a computer course (in order to take an online interior decorating course) — are intercut with her previous luxurious life in New York City. We notice the ways Jasmine has — and more importantly hasn’t — changed. She used to be a New York socialite; now she hates that she’s not a New York socialite. Her slimy, shady financier husband (a spot-on Alec Baldwin) used to provide for her every desire, but in her new, humbler circumstances Jasmine’s desires haven’t changed or even adapted. It also seems she didn’t look too closely at her husband’s business activities — until he was arrested. As the film progresses, the pieces of her former life in New York come together, but her life in San Francisco remains in pieces, and even fragments further.

Allen handles the cutting back and forth in time effectively. Many of the flashbacks may actually be moments in which Jasmine is delusional, both repeating and frantically commenting on past events. The side plots are more awkwardly managed, particularly an initially cute but severely underdeveloped fling between Ginger and Al (Louis C. K.).

Blue Jasmine is topical, darkly funny, uncomfortable, even painful at times, and a showcase for a great performance. Like any Woody Allen movie, we get some good banter, but this film is mostly about Blanchett. Her feline face, eyes narrowing, mouth contorting, is incredibly expressive. Earlier I contrasted Allen’s simplicity with blockbuster excess, but now I have to complicate that division. There’s nothing moderate about Jasmine’s character or Blanchett’s performance. Sometimes excess is a bad thing, sometimes it isn't.

8 out of 10

Blue Jasmine (USA, 2013)

Written and directed by Woody Allen; starring Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, and Louis C. K.