Allen’s is just one corner that proves time and again to be outside of my sphere of hangouts. “Blue Jasmine,” the latest in a long line of quirky character studies under his belt, plays like a laundry list of narrative chords that stupefy in their ability to cause conflicting emotions, sometimes within the same scenes. You know the approach: a character walks into a room eager and happy, is confronted with simple intentions out of concern, and their enthusiasm is replaced with a shrill sense of superiority that causes immediate awkwardness. Is that human nature? Sure, I’ll go with that. But here is a director who doesn’t care to take such conundrums beyond just knee-jerk gasps, and when we are invited into conversations that start out innocent only to be taken to a frenzied pitch of discomfort, he cuts immediately to the next scene as if to suggest there is nothing left to be said on the matter. What is he afraid of? In a movie climate where drama is punctuated by shouting matches and revolving tension, his technique doesn’t play as restraint, but as evasion.
“Blue Jasmine” is full of characters caught in the compost heap of conflicting emotions; some, obviously, more valid than others. Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a 40-something widow whose extravagant lifestyle in upstate New York recently came crashing down Bernie Madoff-style when her wealthy husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was arrested and convicted of fraud. That has left Jasmine, a rich socialite, without so much as two dimes to rub together (not that you can tell early on, judging from her first class flight to San Francisco). The predicament forces her into the middle class lifestyle, and into the welcoming home of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who has agreed to give her shelter until she gets back on her feet. Initial problems: 1) Jasmine had a nervous breakdown before moving in, which sets the stage for all sorts of pill-popping and randomized outbursts, and 2) Jasmine actually encouraged Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) to invest their money in one of Hal’s scams, and they too lost everything. Family tension is seldom so high in such early stages of a movie.
The screenplay’s thread of story progression is really a platform for clashing personality conflicts. Jasmine sees her sister’s boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) as unworthy of her attention, probably because he has no money. Her demeanor barely relaxes even after taking Xanax pills with straight shots of Vodka. Ginger is a pushover to her passive aggressive demeanor, perhaps out of sympathy. There is a quiet disdain in both for what Hal has left them with: colossal debt. Ginger may or may not resent Jasmine for her part in the loss, but is carefully guarded with that information. Jasmine wants to regain her life by going to school online and getting a degree in interior decorating, but has no sense of perspective, and falls back into old habits when a rich congressman named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) expresses interest in her. All of these things play out in between flashbacks to happier times when Jasmine is still the doting wife of a wealthy businessman, and perhaps blissfully ignorant to his clever knack for moving invisible funds between offshore accounts to keep the IRS off his trail.
The rationale of the flashbacks is twofold: on one end, we see how they affect Jasmine’s current mental imbalance (following most, we usually cut back to the present where she is talking to herself as if actively living the memory); and on the other, they serve, I guess, as a way to create a reach of sympathy for her based on all the garbage her lying and cheating husband put her through. Alas, she emerges as a neurotic mess long before the actual mental collapse takes place. Consider a scene early on when she welcomes Ginger and her fiancée to their New York house, and their conversations are laced with a hint of inconvenience. “Let us take you out for your birthday,” Ginger insists. Jasmine smiles weakly, and then mutters under her breath: “I guess I have to invite them to my birthday party now.”
In the role of writer, Allen likes to observe the eccentric behavior patterns of characters caught in mystifying predicaments, which gives him fertile ground to craft some intriguing dialogue scenarios; as the director, his style calls for frequent close-up shots, and evokes simple realism and nostalgia from a soundtrack heavy on old standards (the title itself is a reference the song “Blue Moon,” which was key in Jasmine’s relationship to Hal). The problem is that he isn’t very good at staging behavioral contrasts, and routinely overlaps them with manic pacing. Here is a movie with a heroine who mirrors that mentality, but it never seems as if she is carrying the story; rather, it’s as if the plot is creating strategic hoops for her to jump through as a way of testing her instability for the sake of comedic and psychological context. Most of the scenes involving casual introductions between Jasmine and the people in her sister’s life play on the same notes: she smiles, participates in light conversation pieces, and then is thrown for a loop when someone comes right out and makes a blistering statement. Example: one character says something like, “One minute you’re ontop of the world, and the next, your husband turns out to be a crook.” Her face will flash a hint of disgust. But what is the outcome of that uncomfortable moment? Sometimes there isn’t one, and the movie usually cuts right to another point in the timeline, leaving that resolution off-screen.
None of the characters seem to be human, but rather objects conditioned by a series of tactical tragedies. Jasmine occupies space as a complete wreck: narcissistic, passive aggressive, deluded and even infuriating to nearly every person she comes in contact with. Those are her strong qualities. Ginger, the shy and down-to-earth sister, lacks a spine and is easily influenced by the statements of others, but at least she is well intentioned, and doesn’t wallow in the idea of living beneath her means unless it is blatantly thrown in her face. The boyfriend’s purpose is miniscule, and he only shows up in scenes in order to be the obligatory mouthpiece, and outsiders weave through all of these lives like little prods in varying directions (the Peter Sarsgaard character as a source of optimism, the Andrew Dice Clay as a reminder of the past misdeeds, etc.). All of them are written under the umbrella of a story that doesn’t give them very many interesting things to do, but why should it? After all, Allen is supposed to be about behavior, quirk, discomfort, dry wit, brutal honesty and…. oh, you get the point.
And yet, in some perplexing way, the performances hit almost all the right notes. Cate Blanchett is phenomenal as Jasmine, embodying the convoluted psychosis of her character beyond what the screenplay calls for, and doing so in a manner that is natural but effective; early claims that she may be Oscar bound are not sensationalized. Sally Hawkins as the sister is also striking, playing the material with a straightforward approach when most actresses might try to amp it up to compete with the overpowering Blanchett persona. Peter Sarsgaard is mannered and to the point in his delivery of an aspiring politician looking for the right woman to be on his arm, and Andrew Dice Clay as the scorned ex-husband is good at, for better or worse, being typical Andrew Dice Clay.
There is no doubt the movie will garner raves from avid Allen enthusiasts. It hits all the notes they are familiar with: combining pathos with wit and charm, and an underlying sense of anxiety amidst some eerily organic dialogue exchanges. To that effect, I suppose it works. But I am in the wrong audience for a movie like this; my comedy and drama are more resonating in stories that identify with the circumstances, and with characters that penetrate the reasoning. Woody’s characters just always feel like they are on the outside of the anecdote looking in with a forced perspective, causing a certain disconnect in my desire to accept their plight. Maybe that places me in a small cluster of individuals who just don’t “get it,” but a critic must be honest with himself. “Blue Jasmine” is in the tradition of the most popular of Woody Allen’s films – make of that what you will.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Comedy (US); 2013; Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, language and sexual content; Running Time: 98 Minutes
Cate Blanchett: Jasmine
Alec Baldwin: Hal
Peter Sarsgaard: Dwight
Sally Hawkins: Ginger
Andrew Dice Clay: Augie
Bobby Cannavale: Chili
Produced by Letty Aronson, Helen Robin, Jack Rollins, Leroy Schecter, Adam B. Stern, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; Directed and Written by Woody Allen