Though Woody Allen has limited his on-screen performances in recent years (he’s only cast himself once since 2006’s “Scoop”), it’s never been more obvious that the bespectacled iconoclast appears in all of his films. For Allen, the movies are not a place to escape but rather a place to reflect and refract, his characters offering a kaleidoscopic window into their creator’s kvetching soul.
Over the course of Allen’s 50-year career, he’s evinced a remarkable, Zelig-like capacity to bend any genre to his will – the only thing less believable than the fact that “Sleeper” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” were made by the same man would be the idea that they weren’t.
It’s true that the best of Allen’s recent films – namely “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and “Match Point” – ostensibly seem to resist betraying the identity of their maker, his authorial presence muted by the reverb of intriguing foreign locations and uncharacteristically earnest depictions of beautiful people having perfect sex. And yet, in some respects, the period that began with 2004’s “Melinda and Melinda” has been Allen’s most fixedly auteuristic, the famously prolific filmmaker churning out ten consecutive stories that are each in some way consumed by thoughts of double lives and second chances. It seems that the Bronx Bumbler, so reverent of Bergman, has in his twilight years become enchanted by Kieslowski – his life story all but told save for the epilogue, Woody Allen has naturally began to look back and consider what might have been. In a recent interview with the L.A. Times, Allen conceded: “I never trust people who say, ‘I have no regrets. If I lived my life again, I’d do it exactly the same way.’ I wouldn’t.”
And so we arrive at “Blue Jasmine,” perhaps Woody Allen’s best film since 1994’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” which opens with such a transparently fake computer-generated shot of a plane shooting West across the sky that the airliner might as well be flying into Mordor (you can see the shot for yourself early in the trailer). It would be silly to argue that the digital flourish is deliberately shoddy (more likely it’s just a particularly glaring symptom of the supreme functionality that allows Allen to maintain his pace), but it nevertheless immediately imbues this story with a patina of unreality that erodes as the eponymous Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, delivering the best performance of her film career) swerves around San Francisco in an effort to manifest her destiny.
To know Jasmine is to wish you didn’t. A youthfully tenacious riff on Ruth Madoff, Jasmine arrives in the Bay area like she was just written off of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Ponzi Schemes. Spoiled, serpentine and vaguely schizophrenic, she’s a tragic shadow of the socialite she used to be before her mega-banker husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, natch) was pinched by the feds for some underhanded business dealings. The fraud turned untold millions of good dollars bad, exposing the rot at the heart of Jasmine’s persona and causing irreparable harm to those she had seduced with it.
The worst of the collateral damage has fallen upon Jasmine’s salt of the earth sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, whose suffocated English accent somehow helps to sell the idea that both of the girls were adopted at birth). Once married to a lovable lug named Augie (Andrew Dice Clay in a small but surprising performance that oozes blue-collar brioche), Ginger’s relationship was doomed the moment the couple invested their life savings in one of Hal’s crooked ventures. Jasmine likes to see herself as a victim in all of this, and naturally sees nothing wrong with flying across the country to crash in the apartment Ginger shares with her new boyfriend Chili, (Bobby Cannavale), which is where she’s headed when the film begins.
What sounds like a premise ripe for a network sitcom soon reveals itself to be another one of Allen’s didactic origami chatterboxes, the story unfolding away from the broadly bitter comedy of Jasmine’s new life as a fish out of water in order to reveal who she was before the collapse. Rather than revel in the schadenfreude of its heroine’s riches to rags downfall, Allen cuts between the past and the present in order to unravel Jasmine’s history like a contrapuntal canon, skittering back and forth from Jasmine’s new life in San Francisco to her old life atop Manhattan’s society scene and squeezing the years between like a untuned accordion.
Although “Blue Jasmine” shares the light structural didacticism endemic to Allen’s later work, the likes of “Match Point” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona” were steered by curiosity and happenstance, whereas this film ultimately resolves as a bleak response to his usual “what if?” stories. The film’s individual episodes are largely too broad to leave much of an impression, but Jasmine lands on San Francisco with the kind of destructive force that puts even category-five Kaijus to shame, Blanchett’s possessed performance made all the more compelling by the ho-hum world it bulldozes through, and the deceptively unremarkable way in which Allen frames it (he’s still shooting everything in hyper-functional medium-wide long-takes, but his compositions reliably split the difference between calm and chaos).
While it’s tempting to reduce Jasmine to a modern-day Blanche DuBois (a character on whom Blanchett left a revelatory imprint at BAM in 2009), it’s the differences between the two women that prove most illuminating. Tennessee Williams’ iconic loon lived in a constant state of horror about her fading beauty, whereas Jasmine is fully aware of her relatively haggard appearance, how her face has sunken inwards over the years as if her cheekbones were being sucked concave by a black hole between her lungs. She depends (or insists) on the kindness of strangers, but her nervous breakdown isn’t a retreat into a swooningly romantic fantasy life, it’s an ugly tumble into a hall of broken mirrors. Jasmine’s nervous collapse isn’t predicated upon maintaining the delusions of her past – she struggles with the logistics of her precipitous fall down the socioeconomic ladder, instinctively flying first class despite being dead broke – but she’s selectively transparent about her misfortunes, at least in the beginning. Jasmine’s problem isn’t separating the past from the present, it’s separating herself from her circumstances.
Jasmine (who changed her name from the less fragrant “Jeanette” after college), was a woman of enormous wealth, and the film perceptively observes how being stripped of her money did little to change that. People are often defined less by what they have than they are by the sum of what they’ve lost, and – more resonantly than any of Allen’s recent features – “Blue Jasmine” understands how every choice is remembered for the dead weight of the alternate futures it denied. As Jasmine begins a flirtation with a local widow (Peter Sarsgaard), she struggles with how the phases of her life aren’t sequential, but stacked. Jasmine didn’t replace Jeanette, she just started living on top of her, and the foundation is riddled with stress fractures.
Blanchett’s possessed performance allows Jasmine’s unraveling to become less about privilege than it is about pathos, and if everything around her feels comparatively colorless, it does all the more to help align us with Jasmine’s self-perpetuated exceptionality (Louis C.K.’s much-discussed subplot is wonderful window dressing). When Allen conceives of a character this great, it’s hard not to wish for him to slow down and maybe write that extra draft to refine his creation, but Blanchett – at once both repellant and eminently relatable – uses the casual tone to her advantage, the same way that monster movies use miniatures for scale. It’s brilliant work, delicately exposing the rot at the heart of Jasmine’s regrets until there’s only one left. To quote something Woody Allen once said in the epigraph of an old biography: “My one regret in life is that I’m not someone else.”
SCORE: 8.5 / 10