I have only 570 words in which to write the reviews that I record for Spokane Public Radio, which makes it hard to say anything of real substance. I started and restarted my “Blue Jasmine” review a half dozen times before setting on what follows. Even then, I didn't have space to mention the work of such surprising performers as Andrew Dice Clay (I mean, seriously, Andrew Dice Clay in a Woody Allen film?).
Anyway, here is my review, which will soon be podcast. Oh, and forgive my use twice of the word “atavistic.” I just couldn't come up with another word that carried the same weight. Sorry, Tennessee.
Woody Allen has always expressed admiration for the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. His 1978 movie “Interiors,” in fact, mimicked Bergman’s directorial style almost to a fault. More important, though, “Interiors” signaled that Allen, as a director in his own right, was moving beyond the familiar comic style that he’d established with films such as “Bananas” and had, just the year before, taken a more serio-comic turn with “Annie Hall.”
At age 77, Allen is now showing just how far his creative evolution has taken him. From Bergman to, it seems, Tennessee Williams. The easiest way to reference his latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” is note its similarity to Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Merely to make that comparison, though, is simplistic. Instead of mere mimicry, “Blue Jasmine” is a whole reimagining of “Streetcar,” updated to reflect a post-Bernie Madoff era of lost money and shattered dreams.
Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis, brought to glistening life by Cate Blanchett, is the former wife of a Madoff-type swindler (played by Alec Baldwin). She is flighty, a bit brittle, and seemingly over-caffeinated but also stunning the way so many fashionable Manhattan socialites seem to be. Before long, though, Allen allows us to see behind her patrician disguise: Unmoored from her former life, Jasmine is lost.
She’s come to San Francisco to visit her adopted sister Ginger (played by Sally Hawkins), which is where the “Streetcar” references become clear: Ginger is the Stella equivalent, working-class and without Jasmine’s airs, in love with a Stanley Kowalski-type (Bobby Cannavale), who has Stanley’s basic tendencies but falls short of being the atavistic force as defined by Marlon Brando on stage and in Elia Kazan’s 1951 movie.
The “visit,” though, ends up being something else entirely. As we discover, Jasmine has nowhere to go. Having jailed her ex-husband, the government has taken everything Jasmine owns – with the exception of her pearls. And, apparently, her Xanax prescription. Allen makes us witness Jasmine’s struggles – to learn computer skills, to find work as a receptionist, to live in blue-collar Ginger’s world, even to grasp at another chance at regaining her former life when, providentially, she meets a gentleman suitor, a diplomat played by Peter Sarsgaard.
In portraying all this, “Blue Jasmine” doesn’t display the wacky humor of “Annie Hall,” the sweet poignance of “Hannah and Her Sisters” or the dramatic intensity of “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” But it is one of Allen’s most assured directing jobs. Because its humor comes the hard way: from the surreal clash of Jasmine’s careless self-delusion with the unadorned normality of Ginger’s world. Jasmine’s scene with Ginger’s two dense sons in a diner is a perfect example: the stupefied boys gaze at Jasmine as she chatters on, adrift in a reality all her own.
The key to the film’s power, though, is Blanchett. Good in virtually everything she does, whether portraying the first Queen Elizabeth, Katharine Hepburn or Tolkien’s Lady Galadriel, Blanchett is even more remarkable here. Until the final scenes of “Blue Jasmine,” she maintains a tragic air that is as regal as it is easy to shatter. She is Blanche Dubois, brought low not by the atavistic desires of a Stanley Kowalski but by the loss of the very mercenary mask that has shielded her so long from the real world.