Woody Allen has sometimes be accused, not without some justification, of focusing on a certain rarefied version of the New York experience in his art. While he exists in a city teeming with working class people, his urban ecosystem is dominated by art museums and revival movies house, leisurely strolls and meals in nice restaurants with barely a nod towards the toil that goes into affording such niceties. That hasn’t exactly changed as he’s wandered further afield from his beloved Manhattan. Even in the best efforts of his European excursions, there’s no much of a sense of monetary struggle among his characters. I’m not speculating that his latest, Blue Jasmine, in a overt answer to that criticism. For one thing, the director, famously dismissive of the loftiness of his own art, would surely never concede to any level of self-examination leading to artistic inspiration. Still, it’s striking to see him working on a story about the harsh humbling of a woman who once moved in the most pristine New York circles.
Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, formerly Jeanette, a former high society doyenne, who threw wonderful dinner parties and devoted her energies to charitable endeavors as her investor husband (Alec Baldwin) shuffled conduits of finance around to keep the dollars flowing in. At the beginning of the film, Jasmine is forced to go live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco. Ginger is a divorcee who works at a dinky local grocery store to support herself and her two sons as they eke out a life in a cramped upstairs apartment. Allen emphasizes the magnitude of the change by cutting back and forth between the golden promise of Jasmine’s past and the clumsy compromises of her present, showing how some of the corrosion of the soul Jasmine accepted for her exalted place has seeped into her decided lack of empathy as she interacts with her sister and her friends.
Blanchett, who’s been in an artistically unproductive wilderness the past few years, offers a pointed reminder of her ferocious talent as an actress. Jasmine is a wreck who’s still just skilled enough at putting up her clenched jaw facade of firm manners, even though all the tattered bits of her psyche are starting to show. She’s matched beautifully by Hawkins, who plays Ginger’s comparative lack of refinement in a way that is neither demeaning nor investing it with cheaply self-aggrandizing nobility. She’s just a person finding her way, sometimes imperfectly, and her resilience is something Jasmine could learn from, especially because she’s more inclined to dismiss it as pitiful compromise. All told, it’s one of Allen’s most balanced recent films in terms of the uniform excellence of the cast, including nice small turns by Peter Sarsgaard, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Stuhlbarg and, unbelievably, Andrew Dice Clay.
By now, it’s nearly impossible to find something revelatory to express about Allen as a filmmaker. The director, seventy-eight in December, has been essentially the same for so long that he’s no more remarkable than clouds in the sky. The film opens with the same sort of old jazz song and the white letters in Windor font, vowels charmingly askew, set sharply against an all black background, the main actors listed alphabetically, all sharing one title card. What ensues may be lacking or it may be brilliant, but it will surely be distinctively his. Blue Jasmine is closer to the brilliant side of the spectrum, invested with a gratifying depth and thoughtfulness, an even a willingness to follow its title character down some darker avenues. If he’s long past the point of artistic reinvention, there’s no reason to lament that, as long as he continues to find reserves of sharply considered novelistic cinematic storytelling within him. Blue Jasmine demonstrates that the reservoir he draws from for that may in fact be unlimited.