Are we meant to laugh or cry at the levels of narcissism on display in Blue Jasmine? Both, I think. Woody Allens triumphant dramatic comedy is an unsparing portrait of a One Percenter in free-fall. Its always extra-funny to see a person in top hat or tiara skid on a banana peel, yet Cate Blanchett hits the pavement so painfully that the guffaw catches in your throat.
Jasmine, formerly married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a rich financial fraudster, shopped till his Ponzi schemes dropped. Beautiful, poised and bereft of any marketable skills, she is evicted from her Park Avenue penthouse and reduced to couch-surfing the cramped San Francisco walk-up of her grocery-clerk sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). It sounds like the setup for a laugh-track sitcom, but Allen constructs his characters with intricate care and dissects their class clash with scalpel-sharp intelligence. Blanchett makes Jasmine self-deluded, deplorable, dreamy and train-wreck mesmerizing, delivering the best film work of her dazzling career. Its like a Diane Arbus comedy routine.
Shooting his recent films in London, Barcelona and Rome seems to have revived Allen. Here hes almost painfully sharp. He uses his San Francisco locations satirically, emphasizing the chasm between Marin County mega-wealth and the bedraggled working-class neighborhoods south of the Financial District. Treating Jasmine to lunch at a Fishermans Wharf bar and grill, Ginger squawks, Isnt it European? Allens camera holds for just a beat on a grimy container ship docked at the next pier.
Jasmine (nee Jeanette) and Ginger are adopted sisters, we learn, and theres no other way the princess and the serving girl could have had a relationship. The tall, haughty blonde Blanchett and petite, perky brunette Hawkins are like a heron and a sandpiper. Jasmine deals with the indignity of having to work for income by gulping Xanax with vodka.
Its not surprising, given her self-medication, that she lapses into reveries about her lost life, enabling Allen to cut back to scenes of those not-entirely golden days. In addition to being a swindler, Hal was a cad with a yen for youngsters.
Ginger lives in the moment, eternally open and chipper. Her new boyfriend, roughneck car mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale), was planning to move in before Jasmine appeared on Gingers doorstep. His hostility toward Jasmine is partly fueled by self-interest, partly by resentment of her patrician airs, and partly by an honest desire to protect Ginger. Jasmine drives a wedge between the pair, judging Chili not a man of substance, and setting Ginger in search of a gent with more potential.
Still an attractive woman (when shes not in full Stoli meltdown), Jasmines prospects seem to brighten with the arrival of a politically ambitious diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard) in need of a woman with impeccable social skills. Other passengers on the films relationship merry-go-round include Michael Stuhlbarg as a schlubby dentist, Andrew Dice Clay as Gingers surprisingly soulful ex, and Louis C.K. as a sound engineer. All the characters share a common failing, the inability to face inconvenient facts. Lives constructed on pretense can stand only for so long.