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Review: Blue Jasmine

This review was originally published in my column at Towleroad

Cate Blanchett can't shut up in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's latest dramedy which added more cities this weekend for its platform rollout. We join Jasmine (real name "Jeanette") in medias res on a flight to San Francisco as she's chattering away with, no, at an older companion. She goes on and on (and on some more!) about her love affair with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) all the way through to baggage claim.

But Jasmine is a liar or at least a half truth-teller. We will immediately discover that her great love affair ended in ruin. Hal was a criminal, a financial con artist who pampered Jasmine with other people's fortunes and ruined everyone including Jasmine. She's moving in with her estranged adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), also ruined by Hal's crimes, now that she's destitute. Jasmine hasn't adjusted to her new facts, though, treating her cabbie from the airport like a personal chauffeur, and leaving him a big tip considering she's supposed to be penniless.Jasmine isn't always "in the now" as it were. She never is actually, talking or bragging or obsessing over the past. [More...]

Jasmine & Ginger hit a party

When she's not downing xanax like breath mints she's dreaming of the future which looks suspiciously like the past with socioeconomic status restored and rich husband (albeit a new one) to care for her. Once Jasmine is living with Ginger, and bristling at her sister's low class digs (pretty spacious and nice for a check-out girl's salary!) and her unsophisticated boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), the mashup of A Streetcar Named Desire and the Bernie Madoff scandal becomes apparent.

Woody is a smart enough screenwriter to avoid direct this equals that correlations, though. A Streetcar Named Desire is untouchable and the basic template is a solid enough melody to riff jazzily on. Cannavale, for instance, has the "Stanley Kowalski" macho-crybaby role minus the danger. The "Mitch" role has a few suitors but none of them ever quite work. As for Blanchett's own "Blanche", well Jasmine's fall is less innocent and poetic but she's no less of a mess than that Southern Belle once she hits bottom.

If your protagonist is going to babble incessantly for 98 minutes --as Jasmine does, to herself and to others -- you can't do much better than casting Cate Blanchett. Her voice has always been her greatest asset as a star actress, full of affect, sure (and that suits Jasmine who is always putting on airs), but melodious and extremely flexible to character. Her chords can hit you with delicate tremors of feeling or tectonic shifts in tone that level whole scenes.The cacophony of her chatter peaks with hilariously inappropriate life-lessons for her dumbfounded nephews:

"There's only so much trauma a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming."

But the most inspired beat in her angry self-pitying performance may well be a silent one.[Spoiler Alert] While shopping with her new boyfriend Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), Jasmine is confronted by a figure from her past who exposes her myriad lies and mentions her son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich) whom she has conveniently denied existed. Blanchett goes dead silent for a moment in the space where she'd usually be lying, lost not in the humiliation of exposure -- she doesn't even seem to register Dwight's outrage --but shocked into temporary bracing present tense reality. [/Spoiler]

Blue Jasmine is fleet and vivid at 98 minutes and funny, too, despite its tragic nature. Yet it's also in some ineffable way kind of blurry, a half success which never quite comes into focus or shakes off its duller sideshow impulses. It hasn't worked out what to do with Ginger, underusing the excellent Sally Hawkins by saddling her with both reductive Hollywood tropes (As in Titanic and many other films "the poor" are exotically adaptable creatures, freer and happier than the upper-classes) and with a half-hearted subplot with Louis CK that never truly connects to the movie. The pressing question the movie fails to answer: If Ginger is a convenience and crutch for Jasmine, what exactly is Jasmine to Ginger? Hannah and Her Sisters is probably untoppable in this regard but couldn't the sibling relationship be clearer? 

The problem may be that the movie has ceded all of itself to Hurricane Blanchett who doesn't share the scenes so much as spin madly at their center (less a flaw of performance than the nature of Jasmine's psychology). Just days later it's difficult to recall individual moments, not because they're repetitive (less a flaw of filmmaking than the nature of Jasmine's psychology) but because the past keeps intruding on the present and entirely overwhelming it.

In some troubling way, Blue Jasmine begins as a bastard progeny of Streetcar but morphs into a sour sibling of Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen, like Jasmine, may well be lost in conversation with himself now. Gil in Midnight in Paris managed to see delusional nostalgia for the trap it is and wrestle free, but Jasmine (and maybe Woody?) is weaker, less aware of her own culpability in her ruts and troubles. In the merciless finale, Jasmine only sees the past leaving little hope that she has any kind of future.

Grade: B
WANT MORE BLUE JASMINE? Try the spoilery Podcast
Oscar Chances: It's the hot topic among awards aficionados at the moment but can this film survive six months of scrutiny? Cate Blanchett has a shot at gold in Best Actress though it's far too early to declare anything or anyone a lock when 80% of the competitive field is still unseen. If the film does stay alive in conversation (and at the box office a la Midnight in Paris) more nominations are possible starting with Original Screenplay (28% of his screenplays get nominated... though there are weird misses like Vicky Cristina Barcelona even when people like the film) and ending with longshots in both Supporting Actress and Picture.

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Reader Comments (32)

I thought this film was fantastic. Cate Blanchett is really great as Jasmine - how often does a woman get to dominate a film? - and the movie is a nice and poignant. A contemporary take on the rich and working class barely co-existing in America.

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDevon

Sorry to be that (G)uy, but Husbands and Wives was nominated for its screenplay. Anyway, lovely review. So looking forward to seeing this.

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGuy Lodge

right you are Guy. i corrected. I just remembered the chilly reception and thought it missed. but for me it's one of his top five movies. (H&W)

August 4, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Devon -- not often enough clearly. and yeah, Blanchett is lovely in this.

August 4, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I loved Cate Blanchett's performance here. She surprised me mostly because I don't think she fares as well in leading roles as she does in supporting. All of those movies where she truly shines as a great performer — those roles where she truly achieved a complete characterization and not just a surface affect that is wonderful to look at but still just a surface — have been in supporting parts (i.e. "Talented Mr. Ripley," "I'm Not There," "The Aviator"). Her leading turns are great to look at because she always brings presence and is never boring, but there's also something lacking in those larger roles, as if she can't quite do both jobs of carrying a movie AND go deep into the character. Fortunately, that changed with "Blue Jasmine" because Woody Allen gave her a role tailor-made for her skills and persona. I thought she was fascinating and I agree with you, Nathaniel, that her best scene is that confrontation with Augie.

On another note, it didn't seem to me that Allen knew what do with Ginger. Even Sally Hawkins seemed lost by the end, as if she didn't buy Allen's total reduction of the character to a complacent, self-fooled woman. (Sorry for such a long comment).

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

Good read Nathaniel.

I was completely enchanted by Hurricane Blanchett and watched - twice - with my jaw dropped to the floor from beginning to end. Give her all the awards now.

Did you notice the cute and endearing courtesy Sally gives Baldwin when hey first meet? so so cute. Only noticed on my 2nd viewing.

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

I absolutely loved this film and would put it in Woody's top tier of work. I expected Blanchett to be great, but not THAT great. Holy cow. That final monologue might be some of the best acting I've seen in the aughts.

I would agree that Hawkins' role seemed underutilized (that final phone call between her and Louis C.K. was a really lazy way to write off that relationship IMO), but she was quite superb in it and I would love to see her work with Woody again.

Overall though, I was particularly impressed by the ensemble work. I don't recall seeing Woody's casts work together this well in a long, long time. Even in his recent better work like Midnight in Paris, there were always players (Kathy Bates!) who seemed to be working against what everyone else was trying to accomplish. Everyone seemed in sync here, especially in the San Francisco sequences, so once again, we bow to you Juliet Taylor!

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

I haven't missed a Woody Allen movie in the theaters for almost 18 years now. Blue Jasmine is surely a notch or two above his recent films. But it is a sad realization to come to that Woody most likely does not have another great movie in him. I think the main reason is the fact he is not in touch with reality. At least not the reality most people live in. His ideas seem recycled or outdated. Many times naive. In every single one of his movies in the last 15 years or so, I saw myself becoming distanced from them at certain parts for the set ups or the jokes/lines just seemed so out of touch with logic or the reality the characters would be living in. Blue Jasmine was to me a very misdirected movie. He admitted it himself that he just let Blanchett take control. Well, that is why the result was so tone deaf. She has infinite resources as an actress, but in giving him comic and dramatic in different takes, the character fails to settle in and become a real human being. I would have chosen to make it comic. My favorite Blanchett scene was when she was babysitting because the set up was original and comical to start with and she had the best lines to deliver then (her accent was not totally "American" throughout the film, though). Now, the real unsung hero of Blue Jasmine is definitely Sally Hawkins. She absolutely nailed the accent and created a character with really high stakes and her co-dependence was much more justifiable for we get the sense she was always second place in life or neglected. With Blanchett, I knew what I would get when the scenes started. With Sally, I was always surprised and in awe of where she would take the scenes.

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMr. Goodbar

How would you rank this performance in that top ten of Cate Blanchett?

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I have to say I am really shocked (and pleased) to see how well this is doing at the box office... I wonder if it's about people just wanting those fall movies with more depth after a summer slate that has been disappointing.

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I suspect this performance will net Cate an Oscar nod - a win is less
likely considering the tough competition to come on the festival circuit.
I love Sally and think she is so underrated - she needs more quality
Lead roles to showcase her talent.

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Of course its doing well at the box office. When Woody is good, hes one of the best and people will spend money to see his good work.

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry O.

So happy for the podcast to be back and while I wish it was longer it's still great to hear you guys. Having it back weekly should be interesting.

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

I think the sisterhood is handled beautifully. All the parallels between these two different women are incredibly enlightening - the fact that they're both essentially complacent in their lives, complicit with the men that continue to use and abuse them, speaks so strongly to a larger social issue of female subjugation. Both of them, Jasmine and Ginger, can be seen as both victims and victimizers, and it's not entirely clear how much of their issues are faults of their own, or are heaved upon them by others (usually men). I love this ambiguity. Jasmine alone and babbling at the end is pathetic, but it's also sad, because society is simply refusing this woman to move on and leave the past behind. Only Woody Allen could peak into the life of this rather self-absorbed, bitter woman and make us see her for the fully dimensional human she really is.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Here in Italy we still don't know when Blue Jasmine will be released. I think I'm dying in the meanwhile. Can't wait to watch this. I mean, to watch Cate IN this.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterferdi

I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on Cate Blanchett's performance! How do you think it ranks with her best work? Is it really the performance for the ages that it's being talked up to be? I'm up in northern Canada and probably won't see this for months, so any tidbits on Cate the Great would be greatly appreciated :)

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I found the movie outdated in terms of Woody's perspective of the "working class." I love how you point out that a sales girl has that type of living space, and able to support two children who we see very little of. Blanchett is quite fantastic (though I was a bit confused on the particular choice on the origin of her accent. Hawkins was very believable as a New Yorker, but Blanchett I'm not quite sure what her accent was entirely; Posh?)

In a way, Blue Jasmine is a vehicle for it's lead. It reminded me of the aura of the work Charlize Theron did in Young Adult.

But I thought the humor was great! Overall, it was a very interesting and pleasant experience.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTory Smith

Saw this over the weekend and thought Blanchett was incredible. I'm not sure the film added up to much of anything beyond her performance, but there have been many films you could say the same about centered on far, far worse performances.

Side note: Before the movie started, I caught snippets of conversations in the theater, and there was a small group talking about Woody's past films. At one point, one woman said (rather loudly): "...but Judy Davis won, though," to a chorus of agreement. It took all of my strength not to walk over and correct them (and probably defend Marisa Tomei's win a bit).

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Cate's a conundrum. Her roles are as diverse as Meryl's catalogue yet her performances are more reminiscent of Maggie's in execution. Still, love her and this will be the first Woody I will watch since Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSanty.C

Loved it. Blanchett is tremendous, though I agree that it's hard to recount specific moments b/c everything blurs together.

I love that the podcast crew is back! I too had an audience that laughed at some pretty unfunny moments and seemed to view the film as purely a comedy, which annoyed me, especially in those tense scenes when I couldn't hear the next line over the audience's laughter. I'm mad at myself for not paying attention to people's specific reactions like you guys did. It kind of makes me want to see it again!

Nathaniel, why can't we comment on the podcast page?

August 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarina

Marina -- the podcast page is actually set up specifically to feed the podcast to itunes and for a quick space if you're looking for old podcasts but as soon as it goes live on iTunes (it takes a while) i put up a post on the regular blog at this url which does allow comments

August 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I am not sure if I am missing something from your review, but it did seem to me that you weren't exactly sold on Cate Blanchett's performance. It also seems like you really didn't want to like the film and I am guessing it's because of Cate?

Sorry for sounding too negative, but that's how I perceived your review. I am sure if Nicole Kidman played the title role, you would be screaming - give her an Oscar! You must really dislike Cate. Wow.

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWhodunnit

whodunnit -- i am not sure if i am missing something from your comment, but it did seem to me that you were presold on the idea that I would dislike Cate Blanchett's performance. It also seems like you expected me to dislike it because you believe i dislike Cate? Sorry for sounding so negative, but that's how i perceive your comment.

in all seriousness when you say "am i missing something from your review" I think it might be the fifth and sixth paragraphs of this review where I talk about how good Cate is in the role from the magic of her voice through to what I think are her two best scenes in the movie.

But in all seriousness... OMG. Yes. Nicole Kidman woulda been amazing in this role ! But I almost never scream "give ___ an Oscar" in August like other sites do. I believe in giving each contender a fair shake and that requires keeping an open mind that the best might still be yet to come. If i was voting now Cate would be a nominee but we've seen barely any of the performances!

August 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Just can't wait to go to the "avant premiere" in Paris (already got my ticket for the showing, august 27th, UGC Bercy)..... The Master will be there with Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins.... I will finally see for real this little man with glasses that I love so much..... It will be one moment of my life that I'll never forget...

August 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlcm

I can't wait to own this. I think Blanchett's performance is superb. She nails it. With a lesser actress the tragic element could have become comedic. Not so here. I have been hot and cold with CB's work since "Elizabeth," and this may be her greatest moment so far.

August 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

I loved this movie! It seemed to me to be a tragedy dressed up like a comedy….or maybe a comedy dressed up like a tragedy. The acting was superb; the use of a specific memories to transition to the past worked, for the most part, flawlessly. And I hope folks got the underlying message about what the ultra rich/low integrity folks are doing to the rest of us hit home.

August 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Beale

In Europe, the film will be in theaters in November. I can not wait! It hurts me when I have to read that Sally Hawkins was not challenged enough again. But I'm in three weeks in New York, maybe I can find the time to go to the movies!!

August 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersteolicious

great movie, but not as good as "Midnight in Paris."

August 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEverette Hatcher

Am I allowed to post to this almost a month later? We're having a heat wave in SoCal and I don't have air conditioning so off to the movie I went. My only criticism is that it was too short! ;-) Since I had to leave to go out in the hot sun.

Well, I thought the movie was amazing. BUT I do understand being sort of technically wowed by it all but put off a little bit just because Cate's mental "illness" seems so vague and movie-ish.

Addressing some things that people have brought up, I loved Cate's somewhat wavering accent because to me it seemed that her whole "mid Atlantic vaguely Kate Hepburn accent" was a complete fabrication, just like everything else about her.

I loved the juxtapositions of all the rich and poor scenes. Woody wasn't too tone deaf in that regard. I liked that Sally's apartment required Cate to sleep in the dining room, and that apartment would be affordable with rent control only. Andrew Dice Clay's apartment setting seemed realistic too.

I also liked that in this day and age, someone still wants (and needs) a man to come along and save her (Cate) or complete her (Ginger).

Oh, and can I say that I thought Sally was terrific and that the role is pretty well written and large to my way of thinking. The comparison of the two sisters and what they are going through (a sort of Crimes & Misdemeanors contrast?) was one of the best parts.

September 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Nice review. 'Blue Jasmine' is a really fine film and easily one of my best films of 2013.

I think Cate Blanchett really stole the show and elevated this film from being a good one to being a really great one. I thought that perhaps the recent controversy surrounding Woody Allen might deny her the Oscar but fortunately it wasn't so.

The film really seems to divide people. I've got a couple of friends who hated it but I can't understand why. Fantastic.

March 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEthan

The whole time I watched this I wanted to see Nicole Kidman in the lead role. I seriously thought you would've shared that view. Sad that I'm the only one who thinks it.

May 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Woody Allen has finally devoured his Mother in this film, along with former wives, too.
The Heroine is annihilated. In the past, his female characters either self-destruct or are bimbos or seem to get murdered or never find happiness let alone redemption for trying.
This is a bad movie for women. Same on an aging Woody Allen for taking us into his
psyche as he is old now.

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Huber

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