by Paul Deines
So far in 2013, the internet has treated us to racist Dunkin Donuts girl and tantrum wife, the latest iterations of the entitled, infantilie harridan we apparently love to hate. There’s something about the privileged white woman that of late has inspired oddly fervent hate. (See also: Anna Gunn’s travails as Skylar White and the nationwide explosion over Miley Cyrus’s inadvisable twerking.)
So we should all feel grateful that no less a talent than Woody Allen has taken on this millennial archetype, looping in the financial crisis and constructing the narrative around the frame of A Streetcar Named Desire. His Blue Jasmine is definitely the best film I’ve seen so far in 2013.
When we meet Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis (Cate Blanchett), she is fleeing New York after the disintegration of her lavish socialite lifestyle. Her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) has been revealed as a Ponzi schemer, and Jasmine is already coming apart at the seams. What follows are her attempts to pick up the pieces in San Francisco while living with her half-sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
Blanchett’s widely hailed performance is an impressive high-wire act of manners and existential dread. The opening is a one-two punch of Blanchett narrating her own misery to a stranger in the flight to Frisco (a monologue that becomes more unsettling as it’s repeated throughout the film) and her reunion with Ginger. We are immediately aware of her garish privilege and tragic trajectory.
But the entire ensemble is eerily effective. Hawkins, as Stella to Blanchett’s Blanche Dubois, brightly evokes both the hope and fragility in Ginger. One senses that resilient as she is, she is ultimately as doomed as her sister. So is Baldwin’s Bernie Madoff-esque huckster, whose fall from grace is the catalyst for all that follows. There’s more than a little Jack Donaghy to Hal, but Baldwin’s warm authority (seen only in flashbacks) is terrifyingly undercut by an important detail about his fall that arrives early in the film.
Most surprising is the brilliant Andrew Dice Clay, bringing all his faded braggadocio to the role of Augie, Ginger’s ex-husband. At key moments in the story, he emerges as a sort of stricken chorus for the common man, showing how people like Jasmine and Hal can thoughtlessly destroy a man with modest ambitions. Wood Allen takes heat for his inability to write a reasonable working class character (Bobby Cannavale and Louis C.K. are less effective as Ginger’s love interests) by Augie is spot on, neither glorified nor belittled, pitch-perfectly acted by Clay.
These days Woody Allen is in a class of his own. He’s averaged close to a movie a year for 45 years. The critics groan when he produces a stinker like Hollywood Ending, and there’s always shock when he knocks one out of the park, as he’s done recently with Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, and this one. That’s four amazing pictures in eight years! No other director is putting up those numbers, and yet we all still carp that he hasn’t made another Manhattan.
Well, when we are in the unfortunate position of having to speak about the Allen filmography in the past, I think Blue Jasmine will rank among his best. It has everything we love about his work – pithy dialogue, emotional acuity, subtly lovely cinematography – and marries it to a deeply fatalistic worldview. Entertaining as any of his since Crimes and Misdemeanors, stark as anything from Lars Von Trier, Blue Jasmine leaves you simultaneously overjoyed for the experience and deeply, profoundly sad.