Woody Allen has been fascinated throughout his career by the character of Blanche Du Bois. He even did an impression of Vivien Leigh's Blanche in Sleeper, with Diane Keaton reciprocating as Brando's Stanley Kowalski. Blanche also makes a cameo appearance in Allen's early one-act play God, in which she intrudes on the efforts of ancient Greek thespians Diabetes and Hepatitis to create an immortal tragedy. (She ends up getting chased off the stage by Groucho Marx.)
Blanche is an obvious inspiration for "Woody's Women"—the beautiful, intelligent, emotionally fragile women who inhabit Woody's movies. Most of the leading female characters in Allen's films owe at least a little to Blanche, Annie Hall being the exception that proves the rule. Radha Mitchell's character in Melinda and Melinda is the most obvious parallel to Blanche, but there are others: Dianne Wiest's characters in both Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets over Broadway, as well as the characters played by Geraldine Page and Mary Beth Hurt in Interiors. Penelope Cruz's character in Vicky Cristina Barcelona combines Blanche's capriciousness with Stanley's temper. It's interesting to note the high correlation of Blanche-inspired characters to Oscars in Allen's films.
Blue Jasmine, Allen's latest movie, is an extended homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, blended with aspects of the Bernie Madoff scandal. The film is well-made and brilliantly acted, especially by Cate Blanchett in a performance that already is a front-runner for next year's Best Actress Oscar. Unfortunately, Allen's addition of Wall Street to Tennessee Williams is a heavy burden on the story, and his Manichean view of humanity is a little too much on display.
When we first see Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett), she is on an airplane from New York to San Francisco, pouring out her life history to an elderly woman who obviously can't wait to get away from her. This is emblematic of Jasmine's relationship with everyone in her life, from strangers to family. The widow of Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin), a disgraced Wall Street tycoon who hanged himself in prison, the newly penniless Jasmine is forced to abandon her Park Avenue penthouse for the cramped Mission District apartment of her divorced sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who lives there with her two small sons.
Jasmine and Ginger look nothing alike; as Jasmine is quick to point out, both sisters were adopted from different mothers into the same family. They also act nothing alike; Ginger is warm-hearted and unpretentious, whereas Jasmine is brittle and haughty, a toxic mash-up of Miranda Priestly and Maggie Jiggs. Jasmine—who changed her name from the more plebeian Jeannette—is incapable of human connection. Other people are vectors for what she wants, sounding boards, or annoyances to shove aside. She laps up Stoli martinis like a wildcat, and pops Xanax like M&Ms. Even when alone with her nephews, Jasmine can speak only of her past luxury, the injustice of her losing it, and her schemes to regain it.
Allen shifts between scenes of Jasmine's elegant past life and her dreary current one. In doing so, he develops a theme that was also a favorite of Charles Dickens: unearned wealth makes you incapable of coping with life. Jasmine, who left college to marry Hal, previously never had to do anything except host a few charity luncheons and sign whatever documents Hal told her to. She wants to get her interior decorator's license online, but lacks the computer literacy to take the necessary courses. Scrambling for any job she can get, she takes a position as a receptionist for a nerdy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) who soon makes it obvious he didn't hire Jasmine for her professional skills.
The flashbacks show Jasmine and Hal to be the couple from Hell. They can scarcely hide their embarrassment when Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) arrive for a visit. They don't even invite Ginger and Augie to stay in their baronial apartment or their Hamptons beach house, forcing them into hotels instead. (It is strongly suggested, though never stated outright, that Hal's theft of Ginger and Augie's lottery windfall is the main reason for their breakup.) Jasmine turns a blind eye to Hal's financial skullduggery, and only gradually becomes aware of his dishonesty in other areas.
Ginger, meanwhile, has problems of her own, mostly romantic. Her new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) is much better looking than Augie, but also much more volatile, and Jasmine's unconcealed disdain for Chili reinforces Ginger's doubts about him.
At a party, Jasmine meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a handsome career diplomat with political ambitions, and Ginger meets Al (Louie C.K.), an easygoing audio systems engineer. Dwight and Al, they hope, are the answers to their problems. Unfortunately, in Allen's world as in Williams', hope doesn't get you very far, although Jasmine and Ginger's hopes are dashed for opposite reasons.
Essentially, Jasmine and Ginger are Blanche and Stella, surrounded by men who are all either Stanley, Mitch, or combinations thereof. (The most Stanley-like, in the worst possible sense, turns out to be the nerdy dentist, who also is the only character who bears even a slight resemblance to Allen himself.) But Allen's vision of his characters lacks the tenderness, poetry, and mystery of Williams. Because Jasmine is so completely self-centered, there is no bond between her and Ginger as there was between Blanche and Stella. This is a substantial loss to the story.
In fact, Jasmine is simply too hateful a character to care about. When Blanche says to Mitch, "In my heart I never lied!" we know she is telling the truth about herself, no matter how her actions may appear to others. Jasmine is a liar, period. She is ready to do or say anything to get what she wants, and what she wants is always something material. Whereas Blanche wants to fulfill her romantic longings, Jasmine wants her Bloomie's charge card back. For both characters, expiation of guilt is a factor; I won't say anything about Jasmine's guilt, because it is Allen's big reveal toward the end. In any case, the details of Jasmine's guilt only serve to underscore her selfishness and vindictiveness. When Blanche is taken away to the asylum, our hearts sink through the floor for her. When we last see Jasmine, we're eager to join the other passers-by in running away from her.
But if Jasmine herself is repellent, the actor who plays her is masterful. Cate Blanchett, a distinguished Blanche Du Bois in a recent revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, plays Jasmine as a caged tigress, prowling Ginger's squalid apartment for any escape and snarling at anyone who dares to engage her attention. In Blanchett's performance, Jasmine never looks at what is before her; she is always staring into the far or middle distance, seeing visions of Elysium accessorized by Prada, Manolo Blahnik, and Van Cleef & Arpels. To see her plotting to regain that paradise is deliciously, chillingly fascinating.
Sally Hawkins' Ginger exudes optimism and an almost childlike charm. In some ways, Ginger is an American version of Hawkins' Oscar-nominated performance in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. On the other hand, our opinion of her is soured slightly by her dismissal of Augie, who is by far the most likable of the film's male characters. (Jasmine and Hal, however, truly deserve the blame for Ginger and Augie's breakup.)
Blue Jasmine suffers throughout from boilerplate writing for its men. This is particularly a shame in the case of Alec Baldwin, who was the best thing about Allen's previous movie, To Rome with Love. Himself a distinguished Stanley Kowalski, Baldwin could have given a whale of a performance as a predatory plutocrat whose snatch-and-grab viciousness is barely concealed by a polished veneer. But Allen doesn't give him much to do. The same is true of the excellent Peter Sarsgaard, who is there mostly as an object of Jasmine's desire. Bobby Cannavale gets a showy scene in which he goes berserk in the grocery where Ginger works, but the character of Chili is a faded snapshot of Stanley. Several of the men in Blue Jasmine—Cannavale, Clay, and Max Casella in a smaller role—suffer from the "dese-dem-and-dose" clichés Allen creates for them. (Also, these guys are supposed to be San Franciscans, not Brooklynites.)
The concept of life-affirming working-class types versus death-giving upper-class intellectuals has been part of Allen's work at least since Interiors. In Blue Jasmine, the dichotomy between life-affirming Ginger and death-giving Jasmine is deterministic to the point of crudity. But, to give Allen his due, Blue Jasmine holds your interest from beginning to end, because of his sure way with story structure and dialogue. It also looks wonderful, thanks to the cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe, who also collaborated with Allen on Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Blue Jasmine is as serious a film as Allen has ever made, but it has some welcome flashes of wit to lighten the story's gloom. My favorite line is given to a walk-on character, a dental patient explaining to Jasmine why she must change her dental appointment: "It's prep day for my colonoscopy. That's always a special day for me."