Anytime Woody Allen makes a movie, it’s inevitably going to be compared to Annie Hall. While Blue Jasmine doesn’t quite measure up, it does give Annie a run for her money. With its topical themes and experienced cast, Jasmine’s story is a solid addition to the 77-year-old filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Allen’s latest drama chronicles the decline of Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy New York socialite whose life turns upside down after her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is implicated in a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. Penniless after Hal’s arrest, Jasmine moves to San Francisco to live with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), where she tries to adjust to her sister’s working class lifestyle. The constant presence of Ginger’s aggressive mechanic boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) does nothing for Jasmine’s strained nerves, and she spends much of the film popping pills and swilling martinis from a seemingly bottomless handle of Stoli.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because Blue Jasmine appears to be heavily inspired by Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, later adapted into a famed 1951 film version starring Marlon Brando. By updating the setting from mid-century New Orleans to modern day San Francisco, Allen preserves Streetcar’s resonant themes of class conflict and mental instability, while simultaneously making Blue Jasmine feel fresh—no minor feat considering the renown of his source material.
Some might find the film a bit bleak, for it conspicuously lacks the whimsy that characterizes some of Allen’s most beloved films. Nevertheless, it is beautifully shot. By accentuating the visual contrast between Jasmine’s lavish Park Avenue apartment and cramped San Francisco quarters, Allen deftly underscores the tragedy of her fall from grace. The movie also has a clever structure—its constant flashbacks mirror Jasmine’s tendency to wallow in a romanticized past rather than live in a gritty present.
Blanchett gives the film’s most captivating performance, and pulls no punches in depicting her character as an emotional train wreck of a woman. With her stringy hair, baggy eyes and nervous quaking, Jasmine’s on-screen deterioration is often quite painful to watch. Here, more than in perhaps any of his other films, Allen takes his female lead and strips her raw.
Blanchett’s performance will not appeal to everyone. There are those who will think the actress melodramatic, or the character’s insistence on clinging to the past pathetic. Regardless though of whether we come out of the theater “liking” Jasmine, there’s no denying Blanchett has poured her heart into the role—and is already attracting Oscar buzz for her efforts.
Baldwin and Hawkins round out the cast list with some convincing supporting performances. However, it’s hard to watch Cannavale as Chili without making comparisons to his Streetcar counterpart Stanley Kowalski—more specifically, Marlon Brando’s version of Stanley. Whereas Stanley is crudely and quietly aware of the power of his own sexuality, Chili is shrill, greasy and unkempt. To the extent that Cannavale’s character must serve as a foil for Jasmine, his performance works, but it doesn’t match the iconicity of Brando’s role (a tall order for any actor to fulfill).
The problem is, if you are Woody Allen, people know you are more than capable of putting together a talented group of actors and successfully transposing a familiar story to modern times. Since you have made your name with films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, there will always be the anticipation – whether it’s warranted or not – that for your next movie, you’ll come up with something that’s never been seen before. Unfortunately, Blue Jasmine lacks this extra magic.
That’s not to take away from all that the film accomplishes, however. With the exception of a few bright spots like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, the 2000’s have been something of a lost decade for Allen. With this latest film, it’s encouraging to see that he hasn’t lost his touch. Blue Jasmine may not be a swan song, but it’s a promising return to form.
Jessica Welsh is a senior in the English department.