98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
Tragedies require great performances. Otherwise they’d be unbearable.
Lucky for Woody Allen, then, that “Blue Jasmine” stars Cate Blanchett giving a performance with Oscar written all over it.
“Blue Jasmine” is one of Allen’s “straight” movies, though it does have a few moments of bleak humor. Theater dweebs will immediately recognize it as a modern updating of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Our Blanche Dubois stand-in is Jasmine (Blanchett), the former pampered wife of a Wall Street mover-and-shaker who has gone to prison as part of a Bernie Madoff-ish scandal.
Now the brittle, babbling but still weirdly glamorous Jasmine (real name, Jeanette) has washed up penniless in the San Francisco apartment of her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). She’s dependent on the kindness of strangers (Ginger is kind almost to the point of being a punching bag), and should be groveling with gratitude. But, no, Jasmine puts on airs, complains about having had to sell her furs and jewels, sneers at her now-proletarian living conditions, and winces painfully at the racket generated by her two young nephews.
“Blue Jasmine” is a curious piece. We start out utterly contemptuous of this fallen trophy wife whose husband’s crooked dealings left hundreds of thousands of investors (among them sister Ginger) high and dry. So now she has to get a job as a dentist’s receptionist and sleep on a couch? Serves her right, right?
But so powerful is Blanchett’s peformance that by the end we are (against our own good moral judgment) practically rooting for her to hook up with a rich, unsuspecting guy who can maintain her in the style to which she has become accustomed.
Which is to say that this is some great acting.
To the basics of Williams’ story Allen has smartly injected torn-from-the-headlines elements. In flashbacks we see Jasmine living the high life with her adoring husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), and on one level these scenes seem fashioned to infuriate a viewing public that has seen its nesteggs ravaged by (still-unpunished) financial malfeasance.
There’s nothing here quite as elemental and crotch-twitching as Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in the famous film version of “Streetcar.” Instead Allen has divvied up the plebian testosterone quotient between Ginger’s ex-husband (a surprisingly solid Andrew Dice Clay) and her current paramour (Bobby Cannavale), neither of whom has much good to say about the parasitic Jasmine.
Apparently the Woodman has become particularly jaundiced about male-female relations, for he gives the ever-optimistic Ginger a third fella (a solid Louis C.K.) who seems almost too good to be true…and is.
As for Jasmine, she lays her trap for a wealthy, handsome diplomat (Peter Saarsgard), blithely fabricating a past that meets his requirements.
To say that “Blue Jasmine” ends on a downer note is an understatement.
Yet so compelling and seductive is Blanchett’s work here that we are as seduced as Sarsgaard’s rich kid. Even knowing that she is person of no accomplishments, no particular talents, no ambitions (other than living off someone else’s wealth), there’s something about her that moves us, that sucks us in, that makes us look the other way.
That’s star power of a rare order.
| ROBERT W, BUTLER