Film Review: Blue Jasmine
Mental deterioration and economic collapse collide in Woody Allen’s latest
Published: August 14, 2013
Directed by Woody Allen
Opens at the Charles Aug. 16
Woody Allen’s 44th movie begins with Jasmine (Cate Blanchett in a Oscar-worthy performance that’s a ball of Tennessee Williams character tics), the half-struggling ex-wife of a white-collar criminal, on a plane to San Francisco, talking the ear off of a passenger who couldn’t care less. It’s a metaphor for the often uncomfortable and strangely affecting experience of watching Blue Jasmine: For the next 90 or so minutes, you’re stuck in your seat with this selfish, troubled person, usually drunk, perhaps in the midst of another “nervous breakdown,” reeling because she no longer has her millions.
Once Jasmine arrives in San Francisco, where she’ll stay with her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, quirkily conveying the stress of regular people’s responsibilities), she is immediately struck with anxiety. See, Ginger is not at home because she’s picking up her kids from ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, with put-upon puppy-dog eyes and a humble demeanor). It turns out her sister left the keys at a nearby restaurant. This minor task of walking down the street to obtain the keys is enough to break Jasmine into pieces.
Eventually, with a deep breath, she picks up the keys and tips her cabbie 100 bucks for bringing her Louis Vuitton bags up to the apartment and for being so patient with her. When Ginger finally arrives—her pudgy video game-playing preteens stomping around the house—Jasmine, who is staying until she gets back on her feet, mentions that she flew first-class. “How did you fly first-class?” her sister asks. “I don’t know, I just did,” the supposedly destitute Jasmine spits back, violently shaking her head. It’s hard to know in moments like this where her privilege ends and her mental illness begins.
Allen is trolling moviegoers a little bit here. He’s stacking the deck and daring you to care about the wife of a scumbag who you have to imagine knew a little something about her husband’s hustles and played ignorant for as long as she could. Every scene is a back-and-forth that engenders sympathy for Jasmine one moment and makes you roll your eyes or ball up your fist in frustration the next. The mood and tenor of scenes is usually unstable, making it hard to extract the comedy from the tragedy. Blue Jasmine is thematically austere, like ’80s Woody Allen movies Hannah and Her Sisters or Another Woman, but it’s delivered with a touch of Midnight in Paris’ whimsy. In one of the movie’s darkest and also most absurdly funny moments, aunt Jasmine imparts this piece of wisdom to Ginger’s kids: “There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.”
Adding to the movie’s theme of empathizing with people who maybe don’t deserve the time of day, Allen puckishly challenges viewers by giving the role of Augie, Blue Jasmine’s most sympathetic character, to hateful ’90s comedian Andrew Dice Clay. Augie won the lottery and planned to invest it in a small business but was taken in by one of the real estate schemes he heard about from Jasmine’s shark husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin, playing 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy with a tragic edge that makes it hard to totally hate him). Besides the absurdist, once-in-a-lifetime thrill of getting to see Baldwin and Clay act in a scene together—like some sort of WTF-worthy version of DeNiro and Pacino staring each other down in Heat—you’re also witnessing a low-key, tragic scene where the 1 percent hustles the 99 percent out of a little nest egg they’ve stumbled upon.
Class issues permeate Blue Jasmine. Yes, the problems of the poor are filtered through a once-wealthy, still petulant woman, but Allen cleverly uses Jasmine’s relative “bottoming out” to move viewers through the frustrations of those with limited resources. When Jasmine takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office, she’s essentially forced into a date with Dr. Flicker (A Serious Man’s Michael Stuhlbarg as a nebbish with an oversized ego). Later on, she endures the dentist almost forcing himself upon her. Implicitly, the point is that Jasmine doesn’t have to take that kind of shit for a paycheck, but plenty of other women are unfortunately not in the position to push their horndog boss away and quit on the spot.
Almost every man that approaches Jasmine is a creep or a lout. Late in the movie, she meets Dwight (played by Peter Sarsgaard, looking like Frasier Crane), a diplomat who wants to go into local politics. And though he’s presented as a gentleman, there’s an icky eagerness to his discussions of making love. Ultimately, Jasmine messes up this “too good to be true” opportunity, but Blue Jasmine suggests that even the nice guys are often interested in taking a woman’s agency away. The same is true for the men in Ginger’s life: Al (played by Louis C.K.), a simpleton sweetheart who briefly dates Ginger, turns out to be a liar; and Chili (Bobby Cannavale, rocking Ed Hardy T-shirts and chip-on-his-shoulder working-stiff resentment) is an abusive, codependent goof.
These characterizations are loaded due to the current political climate, where old male politicians are making a lot of decisions about women’s bodies. Here’s Woody Allen, an unabashedly navel-gazing filmmaker who usually resides comfortably in his bougie milieu and bigger-than-this-life Bergman-style pontification, allowing down-to-earth issues of class and feminism to poke through and interrupt his comedy-drama about going crazy. Who knew he had it in him?
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