At the age of 77, Woody Allen's output puts directors half his age to shame. Since he started his extended European vacation with 2005's Match Point, he's put out a film every year. Though his batting average may be considered less than stellar, Allen is still a director willing to try new things, whether it's a time-travelling pas de deux such as Midnight in Paris or absurd vignettes, like in To Rome With Love.
But with Blue Jasmine, his latest, Allen comes home. Not only is it his first film in the U.S. in more than a decade, it's set amid the economic rubble of recent memory. Our way in is Jasmine French, the slurring and swooning central character played by Cate Blanchett.
She's a Wall Street wife who comes plummeting down to Earth when her Bernie Madoff-ish husband Hal (played by Alex Baldwin) is exposed and arrested. In debt and practically penniless, Jasmine arrives as her sister's flat in San Francisco. Still dressed in designer duds, she visibly recoils at the shabby surroundings.
Though adopted, the two sisters were raised together. Sally Hawkins turns in an earnest and earthy performance as Ginger, the sister who jokes that "Jasmine got the good genes." The brunette and the lanky blonde are nothing alike, but family is family, so Ginger squeezes her sister in and displaces a slick new suitor, Chili (played by Bobby Cannavale.)
Sally Hawkins and Louis CK appear in a scene from Blue Jasmine. (Merrick Morton/Gravier Productions/Sony Pictures Classics)
As Jasmine self-medicates with copious vodka and Xanax cocktails, Allen fleshes out the story behind Lady Jasmine's downfall, including her seduction by the huckster Hal (The sex was great. Blue Moon was playing when they first met.), a real estate developer played by Baldwin with a Guy-Smiley smirk.
Although Blue Jasmine starts with Allen's signature — a jaunty jazz tune skimming over the opening credits — this is one of the director's most serious efforts in years. You could almost call it sinister. The film spools out as a slow-motion tragedy, as the layers of Jasmine (whose real name is in fact Janette) start peeling away.
That Blanchett manages to find soul in such an unlikeable character is part of what makes Allen's latest so transfixing. To underline how far the mighty have fallen, he treats us to a series of tony flashbacks, like when Ginger and then-husband Augie (a perfectly cast Andrew Dice Clay) paid Hal and Jasmine a visit in Manhattan. Watching Ginger's nervous curtsey and Augie's ham-fisted attempts to impress make the chasm between the upper and lower class seem that much wider. Perhaps it's an effect of Allen's extended European sojourn, but that Blue Jasmine actually addresses American class structure is part of what makes the film so refreshing.
While Allen has created a host of memorable roles for his leading ladies over the years, this one leaves a bitter aftertaste. Blanchett has captured something Oscar-worthy — that's almost certain. Her vodka-soaked blend of A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche and Lady Macbeth is a portrait of a woman not just blind, but who willed herself not to see the truth.
That question of complicity undercuts the comedy. Unlike his typical films, there's no nebbish stand-in for Allen. Instead of laughing along with him, we're watching — mouths agape — as the true scale of Jasmine's delusion is unveiled.
It's feast of a role that Blanchett rips right into, but Allen doesn't paint a pretty picture here for either of his leading ladies. Hawkins' Ginger is forced to choose between the explosive hothead Chili and a cuddly seducer (a surprisingly slick turn by comedian Louis C.K.). In a typical Woody Allen comedy, the guy gets the girl, no matter how unlikely the pairing. But with Blue Jasmine's two ladies, the joke's on them.
RATING: 4 out 5
PHOTO Cate Blanchett turns in a powerful performance as the title character in Blue Jasmine. (Merrick Morton/Gravier Productions/Sony Pictures Classics)