The typical Woody Allen protagonist nervously (or, okay — neurotically) shuffles between jobs, relationships and ambitions in order to find a sense of deeper existential comfort. Their ability to laugh off their mistakes, or to explain them away futilely, has been part of what has endeared his characters to audiences for 35 years. Since 1977’s zeitgeist-defining Annie Hall, Allen has written and directed a film per year, maintaining one of the longest sustained creative stretches in recent film history. Amid a string of recent critical and commercial successes, however, is proof that Allen’s tendency to flatter his audience has gone stale, indulging in typically broad characterizations of would-be artists whimsically adrift in their own privilege, all viewed from a sun-dappled distance. Occasionally he’ll strike up a more ambiguous, nuanced portrait of desire (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), but the filmmaker is at his didactic worst when he retreats into the realm of bourgeois burlesque; his last trip outside his home country, last year’s scattershot sex romp To Rome With Love, had me convinced he’d retired to fashioning tour guides for the alta kockers.
Thus, it’s an immediate relief that Blue Jasmine is centered around one of the least creatively inclined characters Allen has written in some time, a woman so untethered from What It All Means that she’s practically choking on the void. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), born Jeannette, never completed her anthropology major to run away with multi-millionaire Dan (Alex Baldwin), weaning herself on martinis and affection in their Hamptons villa while he kept mum about his business. But now, after his exposed Ponzi scheme put him in prison, the newly bankrupt Jasmine gets uprooted to working-class San Francisco, where she moves in with her “sister,” Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Besides her hyper-masculine boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) and job at the grocery store, Ginger’s comparably simple virtues are not the only thing dividing them, as both were adopted at birth and have nothing in common save a broken home. Ginger struggles to accept Jasmine into her world despite this, bringing forth the film’s deeper themes of identity and responsibility. The Xanax-dependent Jasmine is forced into a position where she is expected to develop a sense of herself and her strengths, yet they only exist in a vacuum of (dis)comfort and commodity. She’d like to take interior design classes on the Internet, but she doesn’t even know how to use a computer (a plot point seemingly geared solely to amuse Allen’s built-in audience of elderly luddites).
Blue Jasmine’s progressively bitter sequences switch between the caustic present and naïve past, serving less to vindicate Jasmine than to survey the depths of her and others’ willful ignorance. We learn that Ginger’s ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), on the verge of starting his own business after winning the lottery, was convinced by Jasmine to invest in Dan’s pyramid scheme — a fact that the eager-to-please Ginger seems to avoid discussing. Yet Ginger also keeps quiet after witnessing one of Dan’s many extramarital flings, which just about everybody seems to know except his wife. Allen’s upper class characters have always lied to themselves, but rarely has he made the act of lying his main focus, charting its pervasive and pathological effects on a social structure. If Midnight in Paris considered a nostalgic fantasy for the past you never had, Blue Jasmine is forever catching up with the past, shamelessly raiding and reworking it to make it through today.
Blanchett’s acutely outsized performance as a nervous wreck eternally out of her element is nuanced and sympathetic, but despite Allen’s blunt honesty about her impossible transition, the film offers little in the way of subtlety. Most of his baldly drawn side characters, though well-cast, seem self-serving: Louis C.K.’s wonderful turn as a sound engineer-cum-lothario had me smiling ear to ear, but even his character only has enough dignity to be written off-screen. Jasmine’s runaway son (Alden Ehrenreich) is relegated to two scenes of contrived conflict, proposing unmired territory that could have made for a richer portrait. Of course, Allen would be the first to tell you that he’s an entertainer first, artist second; his films have never been less than handsomely shot and clearly outlined on a narrative and psychological level. It’s a hermetically sealed cinematic vision that may resemble Jasmine’s past life, or her dream of a past life; but in reality, presented to us as a psychological case study, it’s only fitting that she’s left less absolved than diagnosed.