Arts & Events

New: Blue Jasmine, Directed by Woody Allen, at the Albany Twin, August 2, 2013

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Saturday August 03, 2013 - 12:00:00 PM

In his latest film, writer director Woody Allen doesn't quite capture San Francisco but Cate Blanchett absolutely conquers the lead role as Jasmine, a woman who had it all and lost it all. 

Problem is, Jasmine (her given name, Jeanette, wasn't exotic enough) married young, falling into a fairytale marriage with Hal, a rich, sophisticated, self-satisfied financial tapdancer (Alex Baldwin, who else?). Jasmine quickly found herself playing the role of a New York socialite, clad in the cloture of Saks and happily traipsing around Manhattan in Christian Louboutin footwear. If Jasmine has one talent, it's a gift for playing the doyen role – to the hilt and to the gilt. But she's a Princess Bride without a foundation. She never had the time— or the need — to learn who she really was beneath the well-polished surface. 

When Hal is busted for his high-risk financial shenanigans, Jasmine's world falls apart. With nothing to fall back on— no man, no mansion—Jasmine jets to San Francisco, seeking refuge with her sister Ginger (British actress Sally Hawkins). 

Hawkins and Australian-American Blanchet look nothing alike. Allen's screenplay informs us they were adopted. Somehow, it works. 

Local audiences expecting to see San Francisco in a costarring role maybe disappointed. Ginger lives in an anonymous part of the city. We see little of the neighborhood beyond the sides of her apartment door. There is a brief foray to Chinatown, one tempestuous scene on the Marina Green and a sweeping view of San Francisco from a privileged balcony in Marin County. 

In a smart touch of crafted subtlety, the Rodgers and Hart tune, "Blue Moon," flickers in the background, providing a knowing commentary on Allen's hapless heroine. 

You saw me standing alone 

Without a dream in my heart 

Without a love of my own 

Blue Moon 

You know just what I was there for 

You heard me saying a prayer for 

Someone I really could care for 

The unsung lyrics sum up the stakes. Can Jasmine (a self-created figment of her own imagination) get her feet back on the ground and become her own person for the first time in her life? Allen has written a great role for Blanchet and she has a blast with it, careening from imperious and proud to irritable and irrational – an emotional train wreck of a woman derailing before our eyes. At her worst, Jasmine is self-destructive and out-of-control, popping Xanax like M&Ms and swigging vodka like some people might gasp for air. 

Ginger tries her best to toss a life-vest to her floundering pseudo-sibling. Ignoring Jasmine's jibes about Ginger's low-rent lifestyle and "loser" boyfriends, Ginger salvages Jasmine's self-esteem by suggesting she consider a new career as an interior decorator. 

This poses a problem. Jasmine insists she first needs to take classes in interior design. But this means she has to learn how to use a computer. And that necessitates a job to pay for her classes. (This plot turn raises a question: Is it really the case that some New York women are so pampered and spoiled that they have never bothered learn how to poke an iPad? Ginger raises another question when Jasmine pleads poverty but admits flying to SF in first class. "So how did you pay for First Class?" Ginger asks. The question passes without an answer.) 

Blue Jasmine ricochets between the gritty West Coast present and the opulent East Coast past. The angst is all in the East; the fun is in the West, thanks to a wonderfully entertaining cast that begins with local treasure Joy Carlin (as a stunned seatmate on the cross country flight, subjected to one of Jasmine's self-indulgent jetstream-of-consciousness recitations). Also on board are Bobby Cannavale as Ginger's boyfriend, Chile (with a haircut that deserves its own special award) and Andrew Rice Clay as Augie, Ginger's ex. 

While Chile, Augie and the gang are amusing and occasionally tormented lugs, they really aren't recognizable as locals. These guys are pure transplants from the burroughs of Manhattan. 

Only three members of the cast can pass as locals – Michael Stuhlbarg as a randy dentist, Peter Sarsgaard as a sensitive diplomat in search of a soul mate and Louis C. K. as "sound engineer." (Some of the reviewers at the SF press screening broke into a round of applause at C.K.'s appearance.) 

Will Sarsgaard's diplomat become Jasmine's salvation? You'll be rooting for these two to forge an alliance. You'll want Jasmine to rediscover happiness and rootedness in the arms of another dapper, rich dude. But it won't be easy for a women who's spent most of her life forging her identity. 

You may be tempted to shout: "No! Jasmine! Don't make up another false story to sell yourself!" Don't bother: she can't hear you and she wouldn't pay attention if she could. 

Blanchet's control of this character is remarkable. She is simultaneously endearing, unbearable and impossible – and, in spite of everything (including some dark family secrets involving lying and treachery ) she remains basically endearing. 

In one extraordinary scene, Jasmine is left to entertain Ginger's two hyperactive pre-teen boys. She takes them out for lunch. All starts well, but soon Jasmine launches into one of her it's-all-about-me tirades, leaving her young charges staring in baffled and half-terrified wonderment. 

At the end of this extraordinary speech, Blanchet's face fills the screen. She is entirely spent -- her soul exposed, gutted and empty. The frozen image of Jasmine in this pit of utter desolation is at the same time both horrifying and guffaw-worthy hilarious. An amazing moment. 

There aren't many actors who could have pulled this off. Allen was lucky to have an actress named Cate Blanchett and Blanchett was lucky to have a screenwriter and director named Woody Allen.