Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) just lost everything. Her husband. Her son. Her possessions. So after a nervous breakdown she packs the last of her Chanel, Dior and Hermès pieces in her vintage Louis Vuitton luggage and flies all the way from New York to San Francisco. Her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) lives there. She is nice enough to take her in, even though Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) gambled away all of her money on a dubious investment. Jasmine has hit rock bottom. When she married Hal she left school for him. Now she doesn’t have a degree or job experience. She is forced to take the first job that comes her way, in order to pay for go to computer school so that she can then study interior design online. Drowning her sorrows in cheap alcohol and prescription drugs only makes things worse. Nothing seems to be going right for her, until she meets a dashing and promising young fellow named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). To appear more desirable she lies to him about her past, but what if he found out what kind of person she really was?
Comedic actor, writer and director Woody Allen is mostly known for his charming, romantic, light films. Not many however know that all he really aspired to be was a dramatic director like his idol Ingmar Bergman. This isn’t the first drama for Allen, but it’s his most critically and financially successful one. Had he benefited from the same kind of appraisal with an earlier film like Interiors his career might have taken a whole different direction. Whereas a film like Interiors is clearly and visibly inspired by Bergman, with Blue Jasmine it feels like for the first time we are getting a pure and genuine Woody Allen drama. Tonally it’s a completely unusual film for Allen. Yes, some of his humor is still present and creeping in every other scene, however for most of the picture, and especially towards the end things get pretty serious.
You can tell he’s trying to make a serious film when there are no jokes about his Jewish background, none of the characters speak in a stereotypical Brooklyn accent and there are no short, half-bald neurotic characters. However he obviously still can’t help himself and just has to take a jab at interior decorators. The humor in Blue Jasmine fascinating to observe, because obviously Woody is a comedic genius, but deliberately choses to go in a darker direction with this film. Lines, characters, moments that would have been played for laughs in most of his other films are sad or only darkly funny inside Blue Jasmine. If you’re looking for a Woody Allen laugh-riot this probably isn’t it and if you’re not very familiar with his other work you probably won’t find anything to smile about while watching this film. His signature humor is there however, only more in a sad clown kind of way.
Apropos humor, it’s interesting to note the anachronistic use of music and light in the film. As always Woody has very specific tastes when it comes to music, and it’s always very fitting and upbeat, in the context of Blue Jasmine however it takes on a different character. It’s as if life is making fun of Jasmine. She was always wealthy and well off, and now that she lost everything, shit is only getting worse and on top of that there’s the funny music. In the same way the brightly lit image of Pedro Almodóvar’s cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe perfectly captures the energy of sunny San Francisco, but is in crass contrast to how Jasmine is feeling on the inside. A lot of the colors in this film hover around gold, to underscore the luxurious environments where Jasmine used live. Class differences and social commentary are a prevalent part of Blue Jasmine echoing themes Allen explored before more notably in Small Time Crooks. I always find it interesting how he is able to make fun and yet sympathetically portray both side of the economic spectrum.
Told in flashbacks, Blue Jasmine thrives on tight editing and a focussed screenplay, which follows the typical Woody Allen storytelling structure. The structure is also what keeps the film anchored in the world of Woody’s filmography and his work of an auteur. Especially at the beginning of the film I had a hard time recognizing his style and even forgot I was watching a Woody Allen film a couple times. I had to remind myself. The characters aren’t typical Woody Allen characters. Yes, you could say Cate Blanchett is vaguely reminiscent of a young Mia Farrow and some characters show typical traits of their “father”. For the most part however they feel surprisingly fresh and new. Naturally a lot of credit also goes to the incredibly talented cast of actors headlined by Blanchett. Rarely am I this impressed with every single actor and actress in a picture.
I’m especially happy for Bobby Cannavale, an actor I’ve been championing for a while now, and finally got his due and worked with one of the best directors ever. His performance is memorable as Chili, Ginger’s fuck-up boyfriend, what a ridiculous name by the way. Love it. Louis C.K. is great as well, managing to make a lasting impression even though he has little screen time. Obviously Cate Blanchett is the lead and star of Blue Jasmine, as the title character, and is likely taking home an Oscar for her amazing performance (and most deservedly so). Just as deserving of a golden statue however, in my opinion, is Sally Hawkins, who just fearlessly knocks it out of the park, with a tender, vulnerable performance as Cate’s (adopted) sister. Lastly I’ll mention Peter Sarsgaard who I think just delivers a career best performance even though he only shows up in the third act of the movie.
I realize not all of those actors will or can get nominated for an Academy Award, but if I had a saying they would all be winners. Mostly however I’m happy for Woody Allen who after all these years still manages to deliver some of his best material and achieves a dream of his, in managing to direct a film that will be taken seriously. It’s sad to see some critics not getting it and calling the film ‘too negative’ or ‘bitter’ or whatever, when they should be applauding Woody for trying something different. While I can see how people might find Jasmine’s character “hard to relate to”, what kept me engaged (much like in something like Young Adult) was how real, detailed and honest the character’s portrayal felt. It also helped that she was anchored in a realm of more likable characters. For however most of us would like to distance themselves from Jasmine, I think there’s a bit of her in all of us, because she’s human. Her suffering is human. It comes from her humanity, regardless of her social status, it concerns all and is part of the human condition.
Rating on First Viewing: 8.5 out of 10