The first shot of the new Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine, shows an airplane in flight. Big fans of Allen’s work (myself included) will know that nearly every one of his films over the last eight years has been set in Europe. With Blue Jasmine, he flies his storytelling home to America, split between his usual stomping grounds of New York and the lovely bay of San Francisco. He gives us a leading lady, Jasmine, who finds herself torn apart after her wealthy husband’s Bernie Madoff-esque scheme is exposed, forced to live with her working-class sister on the West Coast. Throughout the film, Allen avoids judgment, making this the most thoughtful and even-keeled study of this subject matter to date in narrative features. At any given point, any character can be the object of our sympathies, and on a dime, any character can lose us. The drama is rich, the dialogue sharp, the cinematography underratedly gorgeous, the ensemble second-to-none, and the music and credits feel warm and familiar to any Allen aficionado. When Woody Allen makes a great film, he makes it look and feel easier than anybody else alive. Welcome home, Woody.
Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett, immediately shows signs that something may be off. On her plane flight, she’s jabbering endlessly about intimate details of her life to someone we assume is her friend, but we find out later that they never met until they sat next to each other on the plane. Jasmine simply started talking, and the seat neighbor didn’t know what to do. When she arrives in San Francisco, she shows immediate discomfort with the home of her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). “It… has a casual charm,” Jasmine says, similar to the code phrase “lived in” that people use when your home is messy but they want to be polite. Jasmine dives into a Stoli bottle instantly and starts lamenting her lack of money. Uncle Sam took it all when her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was prosecuted for fraud, tax evasion, and so forth. Ginger is quick to point out that Jasmine flew first class and sports a full set of Louis Vuitton luggage, but Jasmine counters that since they have her initials in them, no one is likely to want them.
We see snippets of Jasmine’s life with Hal, in the lap of luxury, spoiled endlessly. The men scheme about how to make more money while the women sip wine and make knowing jokes about how their husbands are likely breaking the law. Ginger visits New York with her fiance Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), and they reveal they just won the lottery– Augie plans to finally open his own business, something he can call his own. Jasmine and Hal convince Augie to invest their money with them, something “low-risk, high-yield,” promises Hal. Unsurprisingly, in the present, Augie is estranged from Ginger, preparing to move to Alaska to work on oil pipeline, his money all gone thanks to Hal. When Jasmine moves in, Ginger has to delay having her new fiance, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), move in. Jasmine can’t stand Chili, and she doesn’t understand why Ginger goes for these “losers.” Ginger could be quick to snap back about how Hal was a filthy crook, but she keeps the peace. Chili, however, takes less kindly to these sentiments.
All of the characters are woven together intricately, and watching the turns they all take is an immense part of the pleasure the film provides. Jasmine at first seems needlessly standoffish and abysmally out of touch, but the more we see her past life, the more we feel for her plight, despite her past transgressions and willful ignorance. When we first hear about Augie, we hear that he’s hit Ginger in the past, yet when we see Augie and Ginger together in flash back, we can’t help but feel deep empathy for the fate held in store. Chili has a violent streak as well, and when Ginger meets a sound engineer named Al (Louis C.K.), we immediately despise Chili and root for Al. We also root early on for a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) for whom Jasmine works, clearly smitten with our flawed heroine. Allen works us, the master puppeteer, showing each character at their best and their worst, remaining perpetually outside of judgment.
Because the writing so beautifully develops each character, it’s easy to see this ensemble as one of the best in recent years. Actors like Stuhlbarg and Cannavale are always terrific in everything, here being no exception. Baldwin is tailor-made for the role of the con man, and his machinations at work, especially when we watch him silently judging Ginger and Augie, gives us some of his best screen acting in years. Hawkins, also a perpetually brilliant actress, makes Ginger so wonderfully broken, like a bird who fell from its nest early and never quite healed. She blames her working-class life on “her bad genes” with a broad smile, which always fails to mask the hurt. Hers is the toughest tight-rope to walk acting-wise, and she hits a home run. Dice Clay is the real surprise, an absolute revelation: although he’s playing an aged tough guy not too out of his comfort zone, he’s a naturally magnetic presence. He goes from charming to drunk to sad, and his final scene is a total punch to the gut.
Blanchett, as expected, absolutely crushes the best role of her career. Jasmine is a woman having a nervous breakdown desperate to return to high society, and watching Blanchett let those nerves manifest behind her societal affectations is truly marvelous– keep an eye on Jasmine’s lower lip and her pit stains as the pressure around her increases. Generally, the wives of wealthy criminals would never once elicit anything resembling pity from a layman audience member, yet Jasmine is unquestionably pitiable. Her life had been blessed, but she returns to ground floor with the rest of us having tasted the finer things, and her desperation to return to her status quo is understandable. No one wants to return to flying coach after flying first class, and no one ever wants the trajectory of their life to suddenly crash back down through the x-axis.
There’s some dark comedy sprinkled throughout regarding the world’s reaction to Jasmine. They don’t know what she’s going through or what she’s talking about, but they know they don’t want to be involved. Our nature as members of society is to be quickly dismissive of behavior we don’t understand, passing judgment on things which potentially affect us negatively. The traffic jam gives us the immediate impulse of anger towards inconvenience, until we find out there’s been an accident. The person who sits beside us on a bus and starts talking to us gives us the immediate impulse of flight. The sibling who dates someone who is outwardly a loser gives us the immediate impulse to tell our sibling he or she can do better, without digging into why they’re together in the first place. Woody Allen doesn’t pass judgment but finds humor in our own. He digs into everyone, softly unfolding each of their individual stories until one doozy of a pitch-perfect ending. Blue Jasmine is one of his best films of the last quarter-century– and that’s saying something for who I consider to be the best living American filmmaker.