Cate Blanchett Dazzles In Dynamic "Blue Jasmine"

You’re the kind of person you meet at certain dismal dull affairs
Center of a crowd, talking much too loud, running up and down the stairs
Well, it seems to me that you have seen too much in too few years
And though you’ve tried you just can’t hide, your eyes are edged with tears
You better stop, look around
Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comes
Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown
-The Rolling Stones

The mere release of “Blue Jasmine” has ensured the continuation of a strangely unheralded streak. Woody Allen has written and directed at least one picture per year since 1982, making 2013 the thirty-second consecutive year that’s seen a new Woody Allen film. That kind of prolificacy and staying power is damn near unheard of in Hollywood, let alone from a filmmaker who’s now in his late 70s. That 2011’s “Midnight In Paris” saw Allen return to awards season contention only further cemented his legacy as one of the all-time great American filmmakers – and “Blue Jasmine” is every bit as good as “Paris,” if not better.

“Blue Jasmine” is that rare film that’s both a true ensemble piece and a showcase for its lead. Its supporting cast – including a bizarre but welcome resurrection of ‘80s shock comic, Andrew Dice Clay – is uniformly outstanding, but it’s Cate Blanchett that slays, giving the year’s first performance that’s a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. She stars as the newly destitute Jasmine, wife of Hal (Alec Baldwin), a disgraced Bernie Madoff-type businessman. She’s left with no choice but to give up her life in New York and move in with her free-spirited sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco.

For much of the pic’s running time, Allen cuts back and forth between Jasmine’s past life and her present predicament. She doesn’t seem particularly happy in either scenario, her previous existence steeped in vanity and elitism and her time in San Francisco punctuated by nervous breakdowns and sadly comical fish-out-of-water encounters. As details slowly emerge about her familial turmoil – for example, we learn that the fate of Ginger’s marriage to Dice Clay’s Augie was directly tied to Hal’s downfall – Jasmine’s eccentricities become clearer, making her reasonably sympathetic despite some glaring character flaws.

As a newly single and penniless forty-something, she’s too proud to fold entirely but not proud or independent enough to better herself, passively wallowing in her own misery. So she fakes her own self-improvement, halfheartedly seeking out a job and a mate to pass the time. As Jasmine stumbles through the life she’s fashioned for herself – it’s not immediately clear if her life changes were brought about by action or inaction – the moving pieces around her become more distorted and unfamiliar, borderline ominous, and the pangs of mental illness begin to creep into the picture.

The breezy charm of “Midnight In Paris” is nowhere to be found here. There are moments of levity, but the film is mostly serious and occasionally dark, giving Blanchett plenty to chew on, her performance as much physical as it is verbal. Yes, her stilted, effete speech patterns are the most easily identifiable signs of her character’s stereotypical east coast snobbery, but it’s her body language and facial expressions that really sell the performance. Pay special attention to her interactions with Ginger’s two sons and the way in which she struggles to relate, both verbally and physically. When she awkwardly adjusts her cardigan, it’s because she clearly has no idea what to do with her hands, or more generally, how to be normal.

The always enjoyable Bobby Cannavale gets a juicy supporting role as Chili, Ginger’s “loser” boyfriend, while comedian Louis C.K. turns up as the “nice guy” alternative whose genial persona and line of work – sound system salesman – strikes both sisters as a step up from Chili. Peter Sarsgaard rounds out the cast as Dwight, a well-to-do Congressional hopeful that saunters into the picture as the logical love interest for Jasmine. That the romantic conquests of Jasmine and Ginger don’t quite go according to plan isn’t a shocker, but the bleakness of the third act genuinely took me by surprise, and I was grateful for Allen’s outright dismissal of convention.

This is as rich a drama as I’ve seen in a long time, and Blanchett’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. Some of her creative choices might be criticized as too theatrical, but the character is essentially an actor in her own life, the subject of an unwanted spotlight and consistently restless in her own skin. Jasmine is something of a caricature, so Blanchett’s decision to play her as such isn’t at all a detriment to the impact of the film. A few of Allen’s musical choices are inappropriately playful and thus get in the way of the story, but in the end, “Blue Jasmine” is a startlingly well-realized piece about real human issues featuring some of the year’s best acting. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Also watch: “Midnight In Paris” / “Punch-Drunk Love”

“Blue Jasmine”
Release Date: July 26, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Woody Allen
Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and innuendo)