By Joan Ellis
Pleasure washes over us in the first scene of Blue Jasmine. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has spent the entire flight from Europe to New York unloading her life story on an elderly seatmate who wishes she had drawn any other seat in that plane. We have just met a world-class narcissist.
As Jasmine empties her rage into the air around her, she reveals her life as the wife of Hal, a rich financial swindler (Alec Baldwin). After a stint as his ornamental wife in New York and the Hamptons, the marriage shrivels under the weight of Hal’s ego, indiscretions, and frauds. As she shone in his success, she shrinks in his disgrace.
With Hal in jail, the last resort for the now penniless Jasmine is to beg shelter from Ginger (Sally Hawkins), the sister with whom she has nothing in common. Ginger lives in San Francisco in an ordinary apartment frequented by serial lovers and obnoxious friends. It’s a setup for a nifty Woody Allen culture clash, but though it’s riddled with clash, the irony is missing. Allen is always at his best when he sets one culture up against another with a touch of affectionate regard, but he finds nothing lovable about Wall Street greed.
Jasmine sprays her contempt on Ginger’s friends. Angry Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), Ginger’s ex, fell victim to one of Hal’s financial schemes. Chilli (Bobby Cannavale), a mechanic, is Ginger’s loud and furious protector against Jasmine, the interloper. By now Jasmine, fueled by Xanax, is explaining her bad luck to any unfortunate listeners but mostly to herself. To her credit, she decides to reinvent herself.
In the worst possible move, she becomes a receptionist for Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), a dentist who intones, “You can tell an awful lot about people when you look in their mouths.” She flees his attentions and becomes an interior decorator where she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), an ambitious diplomat who spots her potential as his own ornament and assumes her gratitude for his attention. Harnessing herself to a guy on the move is the only thing she knows she can do well.
The marvelous Cate Blanchett layers Jasmine with loss, potential, and a bit of courage, but even she has a problem winning sympathy for her fall from the role of A-list hostess in a world of liars and frauds. That said, hers is a dazzling portrait of self-absorption. Alec Baldwin’s take on Bernie Madoff is not a worthy pivot for a Woody Allen story. There is very little that is funny or interesting in either the ostentatious competition of Jasmine’s NYC/Hamptons life or the claustrophobic ordinariness of her sister’s culture. The irony here is that the collective unpleasantness is self-induced.
Reservations now expressed, the only solution to this year’s Woody Allen is to go anyway. You know you must because he’s always better than almost everything else around, and, as always, he has a grand cast that delivers for him.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.