DVD Release Date: January 21, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: July 26, 2013 NY/LA; August 23 wide
Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, language, and sexual content)
Run Time: 98 min
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K.
In his old age, Woody Allen finally has developed a sense of justice.
A devotee of legendary director Ingmar Bergman’s futile worldview, Allen has made a career out of comedic nihilism. Life is random, justice elusive, and if karma comes around it's more by dumb luck than metaphysical design. Bad things happen to good people, bad people get off scott free, life is meaningless, and there's not much you can really do about it. It's amazing Allen's milked as many laughs over the years as he has, probably because despite his bleaker tendencies he's remained a romantic.
On occasion, though, this has taken on darker, more dramatic forms (how could it not?). Blue Jasmine fits squarely into that vein, and while it won't be ranked among Woody's classics it certainly takes after them, and to potent effect (mirroring, in more than a few ways, his late-70s Bergman homage Interiors). Now, after a lifetime of not believing in God, Allen can't help but play God - both over the characters he clearly despises as well as those he feels deserve a break.
Cate Blanchett (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) plays the titular Jasmine, who, along with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, Jane Eyre), Woody uses as adopted opposites to respectively mete out justice and mercy. As vital as Ginger is to the story's construct and themes, this is first-and-foremost a Jasmine character-study and showcase for Blanchett. Her powerhouse performance is what the accolade tour de force is reserved for.
To anyone familiar with the Tennessee Williams' classic A Streetcar Named Desire and Blanchett’s heralded turn on Broadway as that play's deeply-troubled Blanche DuBois, it becomes clear that these were primary inspirations for Allen's Jasmine, all-but lifting Blanche wholesale out of Streetcar and putting her into a modern context with a different name. What initially appears to be Allen's requisite neurotic character quickly devolves into an absolute hot mess – the result of a nervous breakdown following a rather dramatic life upheaval for this woman of New York's high society.
Told in non-linear fashion, it opens with Jasmine already in total free-fall as she arrives – post-breakdown – in San Francisco to move in with Ginger. As she feebly looks to resurrect her life, the story flashes back to her pre-breakdown highs when she was married to ultra-rich New York financier Hal (Alec Baldwin, Rock of Ages). As those flashbacks unfold, intercutting with the San Fran present as they inform each other, we begin to see how not only was her marriage an illusion but so was her corrupt husband's entire career.
Intermixed into the melodrama (in both past and present) are Ginger and her now ex-husband Augie (former standup comedian Andrew Dice Clay). In style, taste and temperament, Ginger is the plebeian yang to Jasmine's metropolitan yin, best exemplified by the men they choose (Jasmine's are refined, Ginger's are blue-collar brutes). Yet while Jasmine's surface virtues outshine Ginger’s brash sensibilities, ultimately it's Jasmine's elitist façade that crumbles. Though she's not guilty of her husband's crimes, Jasmine was an enabling accomplice who looked the other way – all for the sake of creature comforts.
In the past, Allen would've intentionally avoided justice or karma as a way to reinforce life's cold indifference, and maybe even pile an extra dollop of tragedy on the good people just to drive the point home. That's what makes the arc of the two sisters (and others) markedly unique in the Allen canon. This time, Allen isn't just content with mocking the societal elites he abhors (though he does, and with relish), he has to destroy them. At long last they get their comeuppance and, conversely, the put-upon working class types reap simple but real rewards for trying hard and overcoming hardships, even self-inflicted ones. I doubt Allen's changed his core worldview, but it's refreshing to see him indulge in catharsis (even if his need for retribution borders on sadistic).
Allen puts Jasmine through the absolute wringer (all of it self-inflicted, which makes it not just a morality play but an indictment) and Blanchett gives herself over completely to psychosis. Even if it's a redux of her Blanche characterization, her performance remains nothing short of a searing portrayal of self-destruction. Film critic icon Pauline Kael's take on Vivien Leigh's Oscar-winning turn of Blanche can now also be said of Blanchett's Jasmine: "One of those rare performances that can truly be said to evoke pity and terror."
Blanchett mesmerizes, but the ensemble does not pale by comparison – especially Hawkins, whose empathetic Ginger deserves the level of Supporting Actress buzz Blanchett's receiving for Lead. Baldwin and Dice Clay also serve as perfect counterpoints, with Clay bringing his own Oscar-clip chops. Other notable actors pop up as well, most distinctively Bobby Cannavale (Win Win), whose explosive jealousy is the film's Kowalski archetype.
Despite the film's core power to evoke, the bald-faced Streetcar overtones feel cheap at first blush and become more striking as Ginger – and her relationship with hot-blooded men – bares an intentional resemblance to Blanche's sister Stella. That, plus occasional exposition-heavy dialogue gives the strong impression that we’re watching Woody’s first draft. Still, even with the neo-plagiarism of Tennessee Williams considered (not to mention direct cribbing of his own aforementioned Interiors), Allen brings a vitality to his characters and story that can't be denied, and even becomes all-consuming. Woody may be working at a prolifically too-fast clip to be reaching greatness, but nobody could accuse him of coasting on his laurels.
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Jasmine's character drinks often to deal with stress, as well as abusing prescription drugs. Other instances of social drinking. Some smoking. References to drug use.
- Language/Profanity: Six instances of the Lord's name taken in vain. A few uses of the S-word. One H-word. A couple of sexually vulgar terms are used.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Several instances of kissing, including the kissing of a mistress. Husband flirts with other women. Adultery themes. Instances of flirting/sexual banter. Discussion of sex both right before and after people engage in it, though the sex itself is not depicted beyond initial kissing. A man forces himself on a woman before she wrestles away from him.
- Violence/Other: A couple of characters have hot tempers, and one explodes on a few occasions including a tirade through an apartment in which things are thrown and destroyed. Verbal abuse. Suicide is discussed.
Publication date: August 23, 2013
Jeff Huston is a writer/director/editor for Steelehouse Productions, a film & video production company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also publishes a movie blog that can be found at icantunseethatmovie.com, and is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. In 2015, his short film Pink Shorts was a finalist in HBO's Project Greenlight competition, and was one of six winners in that show's online "Greenie Awards."