Published Aug 01, 2013Like most of Woody Allen's works, Blue Jasmine is highly schematic — most of the characters are merely one-note archetypes, with a bit of flair, servicing a pedagogical essay and argument presented as a pseudo-functioning narrative. It's cold, devoid of cinematic appeal and has the feel of staged propaganda without actually being so.
However, in the midst of Allen's economic extrapolation and obvious commentary on greed, class divides and the capitalist machine there's an exceedingly well realized, idiosyncratic and astoundingly challenging character brought to life by a jittery and deceptive Cate Blanchett.
She plays the titular Jasmine, which in itself speaks to her contrived identity, being an assumed name she appropriated later in life to project an idea of glamour her middle-class upbringing as an adopted child couldn't. Jasmine didn't earn her designer wardrobe, furs or opulent home the old-fashioned way, though; she dropped out of school to marry the affluent Hal (Alec Baldwin), a self-made man who lost it all and then built his way back up through fuzzy, deliberately ill-defined means in the world of investments.
We learn this via a series of flashbacks and nervous rants. When Blue Jasmine opens, our protagonist is in the midst of a breakdown and life change, being forced to stay with her decidedly less refined sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and her two sons after Hal is taken off to prison for financial crimes. Initially, the class differences between the sisters — one wears couture and the other spaghetti strap tops from a discount store — make for awkward comedy, just as Ginger's tactless boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), does a good job alienating his potential future sister-in-law, asking her what sort of work she plans to do without any sort of education and a superiority complex.
Watching Jasmine acclimate to her new climate, taking a job as a secretary at a dental office, is what makes Allen's latest work a compelling, albeit anxiety-inducing experience. She pushes herself to the brink of sanity, working and studying to try and reacquire the lifestyle she'd grown accustomed to and misses dearly. As she gradually breaks down and, like everyone around her, outside of the lexicon of white trash, considers taking less honourable routes to financial ease, the overall message of cultural contradiction and hypocrisy — dangling the carrot of the dream in front of us, but leaving little opportunity for those not born wealthy to achieve it — becomes crystal clear.
As an observational piece, this perspective is quite intriguing and biting, having a bit more weight to it than Allen's usual range of interpersonal observations. Similarly, Blanchett's portrayal of someone deteriorating mentally is superlative, having the sort of raw emotional honesty that's genuinely uncomfortable to watch.
It's just unfortunate that everything surrounding her is so cartoonish and laboured. Ginger's wide-eyed, low-class ignorance is as patronizing as the tendency for every male character in the periphery of the story to act in a manner specific to the plot, rather than motivation. Whether they're hitting on Jasmine, or rejecting her after they catch her in a lie, these men are all just ciphers for her development and the sustainment of a thesis. The same goes for the three love interests associated with Ginger; they're overly garish clichés of working class ethos written by someone who has no real concept of such a lifestyle.
In leaving his comfort zone to make a bigger statement, Allen has indeed taken a worthwhile risk that reveals as much about his bigger picture acuity as it does his limitations in social observation, having very little understanding of those that don't have his bank account or cocktail party, performed identity. (Mongrel Media)