By Richard Schickel
When we meet Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) at the beginning of Woody Allen’s new movie, she is, with the help of booze, pills and endless monologues, in distress. She is alarmingly close to a full-scale breakdown. By the end of “Blue Jasmine,” she has, of course, gone completely around the bend.
It was not always like this with her. Once, not long ago, she was rich. Now she is reduced to living humbly with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in a very tight apartment. Once, the idea of working for a living could be dismissed with the wave of a careless hand. Now she’s lucky to have a job—at which she’s terrible—as a receptionist in a dentist’s office. Once, she had a glamorous marriage (to a splendidly slippery Alec Baldwin, no less). He has become a major actor, without anyone especially noticing how good he is.
The men who slide in and out of Jasmine’s life are a dismal lot. You can’t imagine any former life in which she would manage more than a few words of strained politeness with them. So what we have here are the makings of a great performance, which Blanchett delivers. I’m not someone who regularly proclaims Oscar nominations this early—or ever, for that matter. But this is one of them. She is, putting it mildly, strung tight—lost, quivering, a woman of interior and exterior dialogues aimed at getting a grip on herself. Sometimes it seems as if that may actually happen. But she always falls back in disarray. It gives nothing away to say that the movie arrives at an end that you can pretty much see coming from its first reel. We leave her muttering to herself without a hope in hell of finding her way back to something like what? Not sanity, surely, because sanity has never been an issue with her. She’s really just an everyday neurotic, the kind of person you more or less avoid, if possible. Or to whom you give the shortest possible shrift. Blanchett is up for all of this. This is a wonderfully shifty performance—full of nervous laughter, devious strategies, no small amount of desperation, and moments of slightly eerie calm. There are also violent confrontations, which startle and discomfit you.
The reviews have made much of the film’s references to (including quotations from) “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but I’m inclined to murmur “noted” and move on. These are not particularly annoying or even always immediately noticeable. This is—to state the obvious—a Woody Allen movie, thus from time to time, funny. He will have his little jokes—perhaps fewer of them, and more softly spoken, but still present. He has noticed—big news here—that life is never 100 percent grim. The film is also I think extraordinarily well acted, not just by the players already mentioned, but all down the line by the likes of Andrew Dice Clay, Louis CK and Peter Sarsgaard. But it is not merely the acting that is first rate. Over the years, Allen has become a brilliant stager of action. His canvases are intimate, naturally, but they are full of subtle, un-self-conscious movement.
People are always referring to Ingmar Bergman when they talk about Allen’s work, mostly because he frequently mentions him. But that’s kind of hooey. Allen is long since his own man. He has made upward of 40 movies, and I’m inclined to think at least a dozen of them will stand the test of time, at least in part because, whatever he thinks, he’s not making Bergman films—not even close. He’s making Woody Allen films and this is one of his best—sober, sometimes excoriating, likely lingering in its effect. My only advice to him is to shut up about the late great Swede. Allen does something completely different. But not necessarily lesser—even if his filmography includes “Bananas,” which, come to think of it, was just fine, wasn’t it? People grow and change if they’re lucky. And Allen is, among other things, lucky. Imagine—77 years old and still making movies as good as “Blue Jasmine,” when most directors his age are out of work or collecting dubious awards.
Sony Pictures Classics