One of the greatest living actors and one of the greatest living directors have joined forces, and while that’s not “necessarily” the best of ideas (try watching The Ninth Gate sometime), Cate Blanchett and Woody Allen complement each other perfectly in Blue Jasmine. Allen’s entrancing tale of bitter humor and hopeful tragedy also boasts one of the most beguiling character creations of his career, and Cate Blanchett seems to be operating on an otherworldly level of thespianism. I’d say Blue Jasmine is the performance of her career, but it seems disrespectful to presume she’s incapable of repeating this tour de force in the future. Suffice it to say she’s never been better, and that’s not a statement to make lightly.
Blanchett plays Jasmine, formerly a rich socialite, now penniless widow, forced to live with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was convicted of a Ponzi scheme that ruined Ginger’s marriage to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), who had invested everything he had with Hal’s firm. The experience has left Jasmine broken and prone to muttering to herself on the street, her feeling of victimization outweighing any sense of her own culpability in Hal’s scheme. Worse, her overwhelming pride threatens at every turn to prevent the possibility of personal growth. She’s a Dickensian calamity thrust headlong into that “other” city, incapable of adapting to her surroundings and projecting her judgments onto Ginger and Ginger’s new lunk of a boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale).
As usual, Woody Allen displays a canny sympathy for his characters, even when tackling a subject that even the best filmmakers lately tend to lace with bitterness. The 1% has its victims in Blue Jasmine, it’s just that they happen to be responsible for victimizing themselves. Allen seems to be espousing that the real horror of our times isn’t financial insecurity, it’s personal insecurity, and Jasmine herself has fallen to ruin because she confused one for the other. Her marriage to Hal wasn’t a sham, but it was based on the notion that a good husband is by definition a good provider, and so it must follow that he is also trustworthy partner, but even when her hypothesis is spectacularly disproven, Jasmine can’t seem to wrap her head around the idea that maybe she made a poor life decision at some point.
Normally a hero’s internal struggle is a tough one, but usually it’s also skewed towards self-improvement. Blue Jasmine isn’t quite that hopeful, and Cate Blanchett winds up soliloquizing with slightly wrong eye-lines over and over again, trapped in her own little world while the real one struggles to shake her back into reality. Over the course of the film Jasmine will make a dishonest attempt to acclimate to her new surroundings and Ginger will make a disturbingly honest attempt to live by Jasmine’s alluring but oversimplified values. As audience members, we want them to get their lives together and appreciate the family and friends who really can save them from themselves, but everyone in Blue Jasmine is permanently stung by betrayal and can’t help but perpetuate that cycle, leading to an inevitable dramatic conclusion that, really, shouldn’t have felt all that inevitable if you have half a heart.
The comedy and tragedy in Blue Jasmine weave together and create a story that would have been simply pathetic without the humor, and contemptuously naïve without the misery. The essence of comedy may be the unexpected, but the unexpected is only possible through some manner of deception, and everyone in Blue Jasmine – except the occasional victim, like Cannavale’s sympathetic Chili – falls prey to one self-delusion or another, be it willing or unwilling. People make a big deal about losing money in Blue Jasmine, but what really matters is when they lose their faith in other people.
Jasmine has lost faith in herself but is unable to countenance betrayal of any kind. Admitting her own failings would very likely destroy her, and the fact that Cate Blanchett can illustrate this psychological horror story and still be funny as hell is one of the great wonders of cinema in 2013. Bolstered as she is by an impeccable supporting cast, subtly evocative photography by Javier Aguirresarobe and frankly, rarely better writing and direction from Woody Allen, the rest of this movie is equally extraordinary.