When I tell friends about a movie, I usually find myself recalling the events of the story. Maybe that usually doesn’t work when the film in question was directed by Woody Allen.
Take, for example, his new one, showing now at our local twelve-plex. “Blue Jasmine” has a story of a sort. But what is effective in the film is the acting, and especially the work of Cate Blanchett who—luckily—appears in almost all the scenes and is the focus of audience attention throughout.
Half-Aussie and half-American, she was born in Melbourne, a city which seems increasingly to be the origin of much that is notable in the film world. We first saw her as the title character in 1998’s “Elizabeth.” Since then she’s starred in lots of interesting and some important movies: “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the Lord of the Rings films, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “The Good German,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and so on—a list of quality movies of almost all sorts.
Probably we haven’t valued her sufficiently. But anyone who sees “Blue Jasmine” will come away with a new confidence in her powers. She is always worth watching. In this movie, she is the whole show.
She plays the title character, a formerly wealthy New Yorker whose husband (Alex Baldwin) was running a scheme to dupe his investors. You may want to think of Bernie Madoff here, but it may be that writer and director Allen was also thinking of his former best friend and producer Jean Doumanian, who settled out of court ten years ago after apparently failed to live up to her contractual obligations to the eccentric former stand-up comedian.
We see Jasmine (she has adopted that name after having been christened Jeanette) in two time frames. In one she is the brainless East Coast socialite whose husband is a serial adulterer. He finds targets of all kinds at her big parties and flatters her into signing legal documents associated with his financial frauds. When her blue collar sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, who gets the comedy relief part here) and her husband (Andrew Dice Clay) come to visit after winning a lottery prize, Jasmine doesn’t want to spend much time with them, but she does steer their money into her husband’s felonious pocket.
These scenes in New York are intercut with later ones set in San Francisco, where Jasmine goes to live with her sister after hubby’s conviction for fraud, the court-ordered liquidation of her possessions, the disappearance of her step-son, and her own “nervous breakdown,” symptoms of which (especially talking to herself) continue on the West Coast.
Divorced Ginger is now dating a mechanic named Chilli, played by Bobby Cannavale. Allen apparently intended this character to be funny. But when he talks just like everyone else in the film, including using the patented Allen rhythm (surely Allen dictates dialog), Chilli seems more a curiosity than an amusement.
Penniless Jasmine needs something to do with herself. She isn’t too bad as a dentist’s receptionist until he turns masher. Then she meets an American diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard, in what may have been the part originally offered to Bradley Cooper) and our heroine thinks she’s found her way out of her troubles and back to the high life.
But Allen’s screenplay hasn’t done much to show any sort of trend in Jasmine’s fortunes. What happens to her seems to have been of secondary interest to the writer. He expects us to wonder what caused Jasmine to lose control of herself, as if discovering her husband was unfaithful, losing her money, position, and family, and hearing that hubby hung himself in his prison cell wasn’t enough reason.
The movie, one can see later, has been building to a Surprise. But the Surprise isn’t very surprising. And its dramatization in one of the New York scenes twenty minutes from the end of the film doesn’t seem like a story climax. Nor does it explain or prepare us for a further story climax.
Luckily we aren’t really watching “Blue Jasmine” for its story. We get several good wry Allen jokes (“You can tell an awful lot about people when you look in their mouths,” for example). We get lots of odd characters. And we get two hours of Cate Blanchett on screen. Which is pay-off enough for any movie.