In Stardust Memories, Woody Allen’s character, filmmaker Sandy Bates, just gets more depressed whenever well-meaning fans praise his “earlier, funnier movies.” But we all know by now what the road to Hell is paved with. That was way back in 1980, and those cockeyed optimists who still look to Allen’s oeuvre for belly-laughs have had precious little to cling to in his works of the past decade or three.
His latest, Blue Jasmine, takes the auteur’s descent from comedic send-ups of modern neurosis yet further into grim contemplation of psychic disintegration. Under Allen’s expert direction, a cast that is saturated with an unlikely proportion of comedians, considering the dark subject matter, delivers the sterling ensemble work that we have long come to expect from his movies. And Cate Blanchett in the title role serves up an unflinchingly real portrayal of a woman unhinged that will surely gain her an Oscar nomination. It’s an extremely well-made movie. But don’t expect to stroll out of Blue Jasmine feeling like you’ve been entertained, necessarily.
The knotty narrative unrolls in the most skillful and logical progression of flashbacks that this reviewer has witnessed in many a moon, since the protagonist is literally experiencing mental lapses into past episodes in her life, triggered by chance choices of words in conversation. The plot proceeds from an interesting premise: What becomes of the wives of the Bernie Madoffs of this world – the women who have built their houses of cards on an illusory promise of lifelong wealth and privilege, so long as they remain loyal and don’t ask too many questions about their husbands’ shady dealings? And in a larger sense, what becomes of women who have never cultivated any marketable skills of their own, or ability to cope with life’s mean streets, when an economic downturn scuttles the only way of being that they know?
It has been axiomatic among feminists for years that every American woman who’s not self-supporting, no matter how sheltered and privileged, is just “one man away from welfare,” and needs to realize that for the sake of her own survival. That message has failed to register on Jasmine (née Jeanette), who dropped out of college one year shy of an Anthropology degree to marry a handsome, charming schemer named Hal (Alec Baldwin).
Jasmine has played her role of faithful wife well, produced one brilliant son (Alden Ehrenreich) and drifted through a life of opulent beach houses, fabulous dinner parties and designer clothes with her blinders firmly in place. Meanwhile, Hal sinks other people’s money into cardboard investments and showers her with expensive jewelry to throw her off the scent of his many affairs. It’s all bound to come crashing down eventually, of course; and when it does, Jasmine is confronted with many harsh realities, including the fact that “having good taste” – i.e., being able to spend large sums of money in aesthetically pleasing or at least fashionable ways – is not much of a life skill. But it’s all she has got left.
When we first meet her she is flying from New York (in first class, despite the fact that she is destitute after Hal finally gets busted) to beg shelter from her much-less-successful younger sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whom she has snubbed socially for years. Jasmine is embarrassed by Ginger’s working-class digs – which ironically, considering today’s rents in San Francisco, look improbably roomy for a divorced mom working as a supermarket bagger; but maybe Allen himself has grown too rich to notice that anymore. She’s embarrassed by her sister’s taste in clothes – although in a flashback to a visit from Ginger in posher times, Jasmine approvingly indulges her when she falls in love with a hideous bright-yellow handbag covered with plastic flowers, simply because it’s by a famous designer.
Most of all, Jasmine is embarrassed by Ginger’s taste in men, whom she dismisses as “losers.” These include ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), whose sole windfall in life has vanished in one of Hal’s imaginary investments; current blue-collar boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a jealous hothead who is nonetheless devoted to Ginger; and Al (Louis C. K.), a sound engineer who hits on Ginger at a party and represents her hopes of upward mobility. All three men are excellent in roles that are just a tad bit stereotyped; for one thing, Allen needs to move beyond his knee-jerk tendency to assign Brooklyn accents to all his working-class male characters. For her part, Hawkins – best-known for her Golden-Globe-winning star turn in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008 – betrays no trace of her native British accent as she aces the part of the most sympathetic character by far in Blue Jasmine.
Once ensconced at Ginger’s place (to Chili’s discomfiture), Jasmine tries halfheartedly to find work as a receptionist and acquire some computer skills, but she’s crippled by her belief that all such pursuits are beneath her. Eventually she meets a man who seems like the ideal rescuer: Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a handsome, widowed State Department envoy with designs on running for Congress. But there are all these inconvenient bits of her past that Jasmine feels the need to cover up in order to win his affections, effectively trading one lifetime of living a lie for another.
If you’re thinking that this all can’t possibly end well, you’re right. Woody Allen is no longer in the business of gifting his audience with fairy-tale outcomes, and the ending of Blue Jasmine is frankly depressing. But it’s worth the comedown to watch in awe as the famously beautiful Blanchett recklessly discards every shred of vanity to embody a woman who plummets from exquisitely groomed fashion plate to frazzled pill-popper to borderline bag lady who talks to herself in public places. She doesn’t invite us in enough to like her, but we pity Jasmine even as we scorn her cushy previous existence, her condescending attitudes, her denials and rationalizations. And as she inexorably deteriorates, we just can’t look away.