Every year there is at least one master class in acting for us to enjoy, and for those interested, to study. In previous years, it’s been provided by Streep, Day-Lewis, Penn, or Philip Seymour Hoffman. This year, it’s supplied before the Oscar season (i.e., autumn) by the stunning performance of Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s newest film, Blue Jasmine. Happily, that performance is only the central pillar in one of Allen’s best films, certainly his best in years (yes, and that includes the more accessible but bumpier Midnight in Paris).
Blanchett may or may not snag an Oscar for this, but it’s still a performance for the ages. There are other actresses who might have played the part, but few if any could give it the combination of burnished entitlement, insecurity, self-deception, and brittle fragility that Blanchett provides her character. The film is Allen’s take on A Streetcar Named Desire, and similarities abound in the film’s story line and the internal struggles of the main character. But Jasmine (the character’s chosen name in place of her given name of Jeanette) isn’t Blanche DuBois, though she finds herself in somewhat similar circumstances. No Southern belle, she’s the wife of a Bernie Madoff-style character who has lost his fortune and has put his once-pampered wife out onto the streets with nothing but a few plush items, some expensive habits, and few survival skills.
Like Blanche, Jasmine moves in with her sister, Ginger. Unlike Stella, however, Ginger [played with a dead-on American accent and a touch of her own self-deception by English actress Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky)] has an ex and a current boyfriend, neither of which is interested in Jasmine. The story meanders in and out of the Streetcar narrative, and it ultimately forms a parallel work that becomes much more of a late Woody Allen than any kind of modern take on a major mid-century film.
Allen is in old and new territory here. As usual, he features women well and often, and as (almost) always, his female performances are unusually strong and deeply felt. Blanchett’s Jasmine is only the newest—albeit one of the best—performances of an actress in an Allen film. The clash of cultures is also a recurring feature in his films, and the contrast between the soft lighting and colors of Jasmine’s New York life (including a vacation home to die for) with the overly bright and colored life of Ginger and San Francisco as is jarring as Annie Hall’s New York, LA, and Wisconsin. (There’s a slight and funny homage to that film in the name of the doctor that Jasmine first works for in the Bay Area—a Dr. Flicker who shares his name with the doctor that tried to bring the young Alvy Singer out of his youthful depression.)
What’s old and yet fresh is another reminder of Annie Hall–the structure of the film. Non-linear but not in the least confusing, Allen (or his editor) lets the story bounce gently back and forth from the present to Jasmine’s wealthy past, taking us into this memory and that. Annie Hall was structured around Alvy’s (Woody Allen) telling his story with Annie (Diane Keaton) as well as various other women in his life. The cutting there was more Eisensteinian in nature, and the contrasts between now and then (and New York and LA) were more pronounced and sharply humorous. Here we cut back to Jasmine’s memories as breezily as she moved through the large, high-ceilinged rooms she once inhabited, and the moves into the past are more of a reflection of what the character is experiencing, whether consciously or not. Allen was greatly responsible for bringing the actual rhythms of stand-up comedy to film, especially with Annie Hall. Here he softens the jumps, removes the satire, and allows us to experience Jasmine’s past with a combination of Blanche DuBois’ gauzy self-denial and a genuine sense of empathy for her present condition.
What’s completely new is Allen’s apparent newfound appreciation of the emotional and financial plight of the middle class living outside of Manhattan. Perhaps his trips overseas and his European films—and his advancing years—have provided him with a softening toward those not in upper middle class apartments arguing about issues far from the pressing concerns of most Americans. Here, Ginger’s ex, played surprisingly well and with the right combination of hurt and bluster by Andrew Dice Clay (of all people) is still reeling from the bad financial advice that Jasmine and her husband gave them that forever destroyed their chance of financial stability. Ginger’s current boyfriend, played with edge and sympathy by Bobby Cannavale in the Stanley Kowalski role, isn’t a brute or a one-note wonder, but a regular guy with some anger issues who’s just trying to make his way in the world—in his “career” and his relationships. Allen doesn’t make fun of him as he might have a few decades ago, and perhaps due to Cannavale’s inherent likeability, he has our sympathy even as he acts out in ways we wouldn’t want to see in our own homes. Cannavale has become an actor to watch, on stage and on screen, and this is one for the acting résumé. He can be rough, kind, sweet and dangerous, and can play both smart and not quite as smart as he thinks he is. No one else quite has this combination of inherent traits and external skills, and he’s not done developing yet.
Alec Baldwin is an obvious but not always successful choice as the husband. As much as Jasmine shows a deep but fractured soul, Baldwin’s character seems to have no soul, and the actor doesn’t suggest one. He plays smooth and unctuous without seeming too slimy, but his persona (including previous roles in films, his 30 Rock experience and his reputation as a newsmaker for all the wrong reasons) is larger than his character, and we can never stop remembering that we’re watching Alec Baldwin.
Peter Sarsgaard, always a joy to watch and more talented than he’s generally given the opportunity to demonstrate, leaves his usual dark shadings behind with this character in a performance as smooth as aged wine. Unfortunately, it’s a part of the weakest story line in the film. His character’s appearance on the scene is coincidental to a Dickensian extent, and the developing of his relationship with Jasmine is rushed and simply unbelievable when viewed too closely. It’s the one part of the film that stumbles.
Overall, however, the film is more palpable, more real, and more fully realized than any Allen film since Match Point. Even apart from the gem that is Blanchett’s performance, the film is a joy to behold, and we watch with as much concern for the characters as admiration for Allen’s skill as a filmmaker. Yet the core, and the film’s shining glory, is Blanchett. Her Jasmine is complicated, yet fully realized. She provides Jasmine with an internal life that is at once beautiful and frightening to behold, and it puts to shame those actors who rely on externals when portraying wounded characters. From an audience point of view, Jasmine is difficult, appalling, maddeningly entitled, broken, and real. From a performance point of view, Blanchett’s character is a parade of pleasures. She owns the film from beginning to unsettled end, and captures us in the process.