Though late-period Woody Allen has received a lot of attention for a grim drama (Match Point) and a sparkling comedy (Midnight in Paris), he seems equally interested in movies that blur the line between comedy and tragedy. He explicitly toyed with that duality in Melinda and Melinda, in which the story alternated between the light-comedy and dark-drama version of itself and since then, movies like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and now, Blue Jasmine have all let their laughs rub uncomfortably against more serious or more pensive material.
This approach sometimes leaves Allen’s films feeling listlessly fatalistic: some funny stuff will happen, then some sad stuff will happen, and then we die. While we wait for that end, we do “whatever works,” as Larry David says in Allen’s movie of the same name. But in Blue Jasmine, the balancing act works, thanks in large part to Cate Blanchett. She has a showcase part as Jasmine, the trophy wife of slick Manhattan businessman Hal (Alec Baldwin), who turns out to be a Bernie Madoff-type scammer. Hal and Jasmine lose everything, and Jasmine heads to San Francisco to stay with her semi-estranged sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who has not been so financially blessed.
Allen begins this story with Jasmine on the plane to California, talking (and then, we realize, rambling) about her situation to her seatmate. The movie then cleverly flips back and forth in time, so we see Jasmine’s posh lifestyle alternating with her unraveling in San Francisco. Wholly unequipped to live an everyday, non-rich life, Jasmine approaches her new existence with a mix of bewilderment and disdain: she wants to take an online course in design, but she’s a wreck with computers (an incompetence that might reflect her sheltered wealth, but also — like her occasional stammering — seems the sort of anachronism that characterizes many of Allen’s movie stand-ins). And then when she essays a relatively analog position as a dentist’s receptionist, even that overwhelms her.
Some of her rude awakenings are quite funny. Jasmine’s peerless intolerance of noisy children makes for some choice moments, as do her awkward encounters with Ginger’s roughhewn boyfriend Chili (Bobby Canavale). The clashes with Chili also have a touch of Tennessee Williams, especially as it becomes clear that Jasmine isn’t just comically underprepared for the real world, but also teetering on the brink of mental collapse. Blanchett affects a haughty, somewhat theatrical American accent with a hint of well-bred lockjaw, important because Jasmine talks to herself. Or, more precisely, she talks to someone else and then drifts off into soliloquies, trying to sort out her life.
Jasmine’s compulsive talking is of a piece with Allen’s usual tell-not-show storytelling: at one point she mentions that there’s “only so many traumas a person can stand before you take to the streets screaming,” a conclusion that seems obvious by then. The script seems equally inspired by the recession and Allen’s own fear, so perfectly expressed in Annie Hall, of becoming someone who “wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism.”
That blending of outside observations and his own obsessions provides an interesting, nervy reimagining of Allen’s tropes (New York affluence, class contrasts, infidelities), even when the screenplay succumbs to some of his writerly pitfalls, like the aforementioned monologuing to explain backstory and feelings, or quirkier foibles like positioning San Francisco as a city altogether earthier and more working-class than New York (rather than, say, a city that is, like New York, one of the most expensive in the US). That said, he doesn’t lapse into scoring easy points by bashing California).
Allen’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer are so well known by now that it’s become easy to overlook his dexterity as a director. Here his camera snakes around the tight confines of Ginger’s apartment, staying on Blanchett’s face, driving home her discomfort. The crosscutting between past and present creates its own tensions, as when Jasmine’s new suitor Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) asks, regarding Hal’s line of work, “What did he do?” The question feels edgy and loaded even when his intention is innocent, because Hal’s scenes linger when intercut with Jasmine’s attempts to start over.
In the end, Blue Jasmine focuses so intently on Blanchett that it feels both startlingly intimate and a little repetitive. A few other characters show up, including those played by Louis CK (whose delivery finds natural laughs without any real jokes) and a surprisingly affecting Andrew Dice Clay, almost like a Woody Allen ensemble film is happening in the background of this character study. But as a character study, it’s half funny and half devastating, a portrait of a woman so unsympathetic in so many ways, but nonetheless touching in her utter loss. “Whatever works” for Jasmine is money and status, and it’s not working for her anymore.