Silver Screen: Blue Jasmine ****1/2
Some phenomena occur so frequently they become routine. The aurora borealis regularly light up the northern sky, Old Faithful erupts every ninety-one minutes at Yellowstone, and each year Woody Allen releases a new movie. At this point, the latter is as much a predictable, natural resource as the geyser and the skylights.
Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s forty-fifth feature film. The last year he failed to release a movie was way back in 1981. But what’s more impressive than his metronomic consistency is that the seventy-seven-year-old filmmaker continues to refine his technique and elevate the quality of his product. Midnight in Paris, from 2011, was his highest-grossing film to date. His latest, the fantastic, nuanced character study Blue Jasmine, is a movie he couldn’t have made thirty years ago.
Jasmine, played here by a never-better Cate Blanchett, is a disgraced socialite who lost her Tiffany crystal marbles when her wealthy husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) turned out to be a Bernie Madoff-style fraud. Near penniless, she moves to a middle-class neighborhood in San Francisco to stay with her estranged sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine is self-obsessed and still reeling from her upturned status, and her ingratitude shows every time she complains about Ginger’s living conditions, her children, and her meathead boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale).
The characters in Blue Jasmine do a lot of talking about money, but the class conflicts are sublimated into personal arguments. Jasmine ridicules Ginger’s taste in men, but her boyfriend’s crude honesty is the inverse of Hal’s eloquent lies. In a particularly nasty twist we learn that Ginger once had a great opportunity when her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) won the lottery, but Hal bilked them out of their $200,000 in one of his schemes.
A younger Woody Allen could never have made Blue Jasmine, or at least not made it into such a layered, thought-provoking film that was also unabashedly entertaining. In the first half of his career, Allen’s movies fell into one of two categories: delightfully silly or woefully dramatic. Either he was dressed as a giant sperm or channeling Ingmar Bergman’s black-and-white existential meditations. An earlier version of Blue Jasmine would have been suffocatingly bleak, and no doubt the shrill Mia Farrow would have played Jasmine. Around the time of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), the Woodman began to successfully merge comedy and tragedy, shoring up his comedies with more thoughtful thematic concerns while injecting a spirit of levity into his dramas. Blue Jasmine is the best example of this hybrid approach since 2005’s excellent Match Point. Allen seizes the form of the melodrama-- there’s a touch of Mildred Pierce in Jasmine-- but his pithy dialogue and more lighthearted supporting characters help even out the tone.
Casting is key here, especially Allen’s inspired selection of two comedians to play Ginger’s past and present love interests. Andrew Dice Clay is particularly good as Ginger’s working-class ex-, and Louis C.K. shines in a small part as her potential new boyfriend. The exceptionally charismatic Cannavale rounds out the blue-collar chorus of men in Ginger’s life trying to point out that Jasmine is incapable of selflessness or compassion. And while Blue Jasmine is definitively a showcase for Cate Blanchett, Hawkins is almost equally good, and strong turns from bit players Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, and Max Casella (Vinny from Doogie Howser!) round out one of Allen’s most impressive ensembles.
Of course, already on deck is next year’s picture, still listed as Untitled Woody Allen Project. It will be Woody’s forty-sixth feature-length film and will be released just a year or so shy of his eightieth birthday. Whether or not it leans toward comedy or drama remains to be seen, but it will almost certainly be interesting. That, in and of itself, is a kind of miracle.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.