The Films of 2013: Blue Jasmine

Looking back through Woody Allen’s filmography, it’s possible to make the claim that some of his most interesting films are about class, or, to be more specific, about the sparks that fly when blue bloods rub elbows with vulgarians.  In films like Mighty Aphrodite or Broadway Danny Rose, in both of which the straight-laced Woody tangles with cheerfully tacky, slightly dumb broads of the Judy Holliday variety, the contrast is played for broad laughs; straight dramas like Match Point, about the ruthlessness of social climbing, are more ironic.  Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, falls somewhere in between comedy and tragedy.  It’s a bluesy number performed with quiet desperation by the superb Cate Blanchett, playing a fallen Park Avenue socialite who moves to San Francisco to live with her sister in what she believes to be squalor.  Golden-hued flashbacks reveal glimpses of Jasmine’s former life, in which, flush with money, she wiles away the hours shopping and entertaining in the style of one of Bravo’s Real Housewives.  Then her crooked husband gets arrested and her world comes crashing down around her; she nurses mild addictions to Xanax and top-shelf vodka, and succumbs to fits of depression, often mumbling to herself or lashing out at phantoms.

Jasmine is a great character, one of Allen’s most compelling, and one that feels original; he’s written Upper West Side snobs and trophy wives before, but never with this much depth or sensitivity.  (She’s irritating, funny, and pitiable by turns, and in the film’s best scenes the facets shade elegantly into one another.)  Blanchett hasn’t been called upon to be this good in nearly a decade, arguably not since she played Katharine Hepburn—brilliantly—for Martin Scorsese in The Aviator.  As opposed to Allen’s more ensemble-driven work, Blue Jasmine is a single character study, and it demands to be carried by an actor of Blanchett’s caliber and intelligence.  When she’s not on-screen, the movie belongs to Sally Hawkins as the more practical-minded sister, who has her own share of disappointments but who weathers them more easily, with an attitude that Jasmine dismisses as deluded.  The interplay between the sensibilities of the two sisters lends the film much of its sweet-and-sour flavor, allowing Allen to mix comic and dramatic tones, upper- and lower-middle-class milieux, and East- and West-Coast locations.  

But while Blue Jasmine works, mostly thanks to the handling of its central character, it’s marred by those nagging details—a tone-deaf line of dialogue, an awkward bit of blocking, a clunky plot point—that have weakened even Allen’s best work of the past fifteen years.  You often get the feeling that Allen, who remains a crackerjack storyteller, has almost no real sense of twenty-first century life, such as how kids behave, or whether or not a dentist’s receptionist would have a computer at her desk, or those subtle distinctions through which the nuances of class get communicated: what a party for upper-middle-class Californians looks like, or what kind of music would be playing there.  These, combined with a few more egregiously false notes (such as a scene of would-be sexual assault, played for queasy laughs) keep Blue Jasmine from being top-shelf Allen. 

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