Back in the U.S.A. after a too-long decade of feature filming abroad, Woody Allen returns to the scene of his early comic crimes and misdemeanors in his new drama “Blue Jasmine.” Heading back to American soil from romance and adventure in Italy (“To Rome with Love“), nostalgic time travel in France (“Midnight in Paris“), with stops in London (“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” and “Match Point“) and Spain (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona“), he’s landed in San Francisco, where he directed his first American feature, “Take the Money and Run,” 44 years ago. (Yes, Allenistas are screaming “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” was the director’s first full-length outing, but he merely dubbed and re-edited a Japanese spy movie, albeit with hilarious results.)
The neurotic Brooklyn-born helmer is back with another humdinger of a cast, with all eyes focused on the mesmerizing performance of Cate Blanchett, whose eponymous role here is a strong contender for best actress consideration this awards season. No doubt I’m not the only person who believes she might finally take home an Oscar® after five previous nominations. Heck, when Allen directs, any actress (or actor) has good odds of scoring at least really good notices, and this is his best female-driven script since “Hannah and Her Sisters” in 1986. That masterpiece won three of the little statuettes (best original screenplay, best actor for Michael Caine, and best supporting actress for Dianne Wiest) out of a possible seven.
Blanchett, like the delusion-infused Blanche she portrayed in the 2009 staging of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” is inspired as the desperately forlorn and out-of-her-comfort-zone Jasmine French, whose wealthy financier husband was caught in a Ponzi scheme and other flagrant situations, so now she has to suffer, dammit. Curse you economic crisis! Her jailed spouse, Hal (Alec Baldwin), chiseled in the manner of Bernie Madoff, is caught, for constantly expanding back-story purposes, in a few too many flashbacks, many of which are triggered by certain dialogue in the script and which end with Jasmine’s Xanax-infused Norma Desmond-esque character drifting back to a cloudy, present-day reality. She’s often on a street corner and in a distraught, where-the-hell-am-I? state of mind, muttering to no one in particular, finishing a thought from her flashback. Maybe that’s why Allen based it in San Francisco, well known for its naturally-produced fog.
Barely left with the designer clothes on her back and the Louis Vuitton suitcases carrying them, the high-flying socialite has been booted from the comfort of her expansive Park Avenue apartment. She’s in dire straights and, the horror, fearful of the budgeted life ahead. Although she flew first class as she arrives in Northern California, there’s no explanation as to how she maneuvered that–although it’s not beyond her self-delusional, conniving means. She could have ended up in the psych ward on Alcatraz, and might have preferred that to 301 South Van Ness, the modest, walk-up apartment of her lightly-educated, humble sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins “Happy-Go-Lucky” and Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream”), a supermarket check-out gal. They were both adopted; one child picked mom, one took dad. Jasmine, frankly, wouldn’t give Ginger the time of day if circumstances didn’t force the situation. They’ve never been close. And Jasmine doesn’t make friends easy in the city by the bay, as if she had any real ones before her fall from grace.
Do things pick up? Well, the rest of the supporting cast, new to the Woody universe, certainly delivers. Andrew Dice Clay is Augie, Ginger’s blue-collar ex-husband and father of her two kids. They broke up in the aftermath of a $200,000 lottery windfall that was invested, and lost, by Hal, rather than setting up a small construction business. There’s also the hot-headed Chili (Bobby Cannavale), Ginger’s current boyfriend, who is constantly butting heads with the intrusive sister. As her money runs out, the pitifully inept Jasmine reluctantly takes a job as a receptionist for Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), a dentist who expects a little more attention from her than she is willing to offer.
Other love interests arrive for Ginger, who has a fling with Al (Louis C.K.), a friendly, frisky sound engineer, and for Jasmine, who meets the politically ambitious diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who admires her style and refinement. Of course, he knows nothing of her disastrous past or her psychological balancing act, which remain hidden behind her well coiffed hair, perfect makeup, and fashionable appearance from what’s left of her stunning New York wardrobe. She keeps it that way, for the most part, fabricating a new life as an interior designer to the rich and powerful.
You still feel an emotional train wreck is around every twisted street corner as the story develops. That the titular creature of privilege will forever drive yet another inappropriate wedge between her new acquaintances, without calculating the consequences. Between her too many pills and too much vodka, she might also tumble down one of San Francisco’s famous hills. And perhaps the ending isn’t as satisfying as I had hoped.
There’s a reason why Woody Allen’s screenplays have been nominated for 15 Academy Awards®. Comic genius, dramatic wit, sharp observation, great characters. With “Blue Jasmine,” he has taken effete snobbery to glorious heights.