Cool, severe, imposing: Cate Blanchett never so much inhabits the screen as she does command it. She belongs to a certain class of thespian (Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh) that I would call less an actress than a presence – they’re never entirely convincing as anyone but themselves, but that’s often sort of the point. Seeing a film about Elizabeth I and seeing a film with Blanchett as Elizabeth I aren’t quite the same thing.
With “Blue Jasmine,” her first lead role in several years, Blanchett has opted to take on an equally iconic role, although this one is not historical but archetypical. After she played Blanche DuBois in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s acclaimed 2009 stage revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” I suppose it was inevitable that Blanchett would bring her characterization to the art-house in one way or another. The surprise of “Blue Jasmine,” a sharp-witted tragedy of a fallen socialite, is not that Blanchett would star (and shine) in it, but that Modern Woody Allen would make it.
See, back in the day Classic Woody Allen made movies that were not only funny and charming but carried an edge. Films like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Husbands and Wives,” “Alice,” “September;” there is a humanism in these works that made room for tragedy and emotional turmoil as well as Allen’s observational humor. Modern Woody (defined roughly as post-“Sweet and Lowdown”) hasn’t seemed as interested in crises of faith or the perils of modern romance – “Match Point” is about the only film from the past ten years that nods in that direction, and it’s more something that belongs in a cabinet of curiosities than among the crown jewels – leading to a thematic stagnation that’s led to the auteur’s films looking increasingly backwards. “Midnight in Paris” was the apex of this trend, both in terms of literal time travel and, thankfully, actually creatively addressing Allen’s increasing nostalgia and floundering attempts to stay relevant in a contemporary, 21st-century setting. But last year’s slight and forgettable “To Rome With Love” seemed to put the writer/director back at square one.
Instead, it seems he was just saving his energy and ire for “Blue Jasmine,” Allen’s most well-honed, germane work in at least a decade. This is not the kind of self-indulgent, obligatory sort of film that emerges out of just pumping out a film per year – it has something legitimate to say about ambition and wealth in the Madoff era, channeled through the biting personal drama of Tennessee Williams. If that sounds overly dour, it’s because you’re forgetting that we’re still dealing with Woody Allen, and there is still plenty of fun to be had. It’s just that there’s more bite behind the laughter than usual.
The film’s delicate balance between comedy and tragedy is well defined in its protagonist, one of Woody’s most fully-fleshed out creations. Jasmine is a great jumble of humanity: entitled, haughty, critical and delusional, but also a sympathetic, beleaguered nervous wreck. When she shows up at her sister’s apartment in San Francisco, destitute and lost after the discovery of her husband’s white-collar crimes, she seems nothing but a vapid socialite, incapable of taking care of herself. She fills the air with a constant barrage of inane conversation and embellished memories of parties and people that her sister never has been nor ever will be privy to, motoring along as if a moment of self-reflection would kill her.
But it might do. Though she seems flighty and impractical, Jasmine actually pursues her dreams of rising back up the social stratosphere with remarkable determination, a sign that she has never been the pushover that everyone assumes her to be. When it comes to her life before her husband’s scandal or after it, Jasmine is purposeful and resolute – but there’s a gray patch in the middle, somewhere around her husband’s arrest and the nervous breakdown that followed, that eats away at Jasmine. Allen bounces back and forth in time, flashing back to Jasmine’s Upper East Side life with Hal, dancing around the moment everything fell apart just as Jasmine does. To her great frustration (and the detriment of her mental health), it’s all anyone else can focus on.
For even though they seem to find her judgmental and nosy, everyone around Jasmine sure seems content to pay her back in kind. Her sister (the perpetually haggard Sally Hawkins) clearly harbors resentment over the siblings’ divergent paths; her sister’s short-tempered boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale, in best Stanley Kowalski form) considers Jasmine a threat to his family plans; and her sister’s ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), who lost his life’s savings in Hal’s Ponzi scheme, accuses Jasmine of being an ignorant enabler. Among all these shattered perceptions, who Jasmine might actually be is lost, even to herself.
This is perhaps the first film in the Modern Woody era that feels like it was actually cast according to character, rather than just according to the sort of people who might like to be in a Woody Allen movie this month (plus Scarlett Johannson). Alec Baldwin is perfect as Hal, all shiny exterior and no soul, while Hawkins, Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard and even Dice Clay are totally appropriate in their respective roles. The real windfall though is Blanchett, and we can only hope that Allen is looking for a new blonde muse. Her mannered style dovetails with Jasmine’s false airs, making it all the more believable and affecting when the great dame’s carefully constructed exterior comes crashing down.
“Blue Jasmine” lacks the kind of iconic imagery of Tennessee Williams – like many of even Classic Woody’s films, this movie doesn’t ever really shoot for moments of transcendent truth or clarity, but is content to deliver at a consistent highbrow pitch. In terms of where the characters end up, the film ends not all that far from where it begins – but there’s an infinite sadness that emerges from that inertia. For someone like Jasmine, there is nowhere to go but down.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars