Given that Woody Allen works in a closed creative ecosystem (no musical or theatrical influences after 1960, no cinematic ones after 1970), it’s amazing how skilled he is in making his old ideas seem fresh, lively, even urgent. His new drama Blue Jasmine comes this close to being a wheeze. But he sells it beautifully.
Allen has borrowed his setup (and theatrical attack) from A Streetcar Named Desire, which he brings into the present by making Blanche DuBois a younger Mrs. Bernie Madoff. Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine (née Jeanette), once impossibly wealthy and ensconced in New York society, now broke and homeless — and forced to move in with her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in a cramped San Francisco apartment. When she’s not insulting Ginger’s dopey-prole boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), Jasmine swallows anti-depressants and goes in and out of fugue states, babbling to anyone and no one while we’re whisked back in time to scenes of her life with her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), in Manhattan and the Hamptons.
That Blanchett played Blanche onstage (under the direction of Liv Ullmann) less than five years ago is a mixed blessing. She knows this song too well — she must have had to labor to keep the southern cadences out of her speech. In her first scene, in which she holds forth in a plane (all the way to the luggage carousel) to an unfortunate fellow passenger, Blanchett seems too theatrical, too fluent. Wouldn’t it be better to have a less external actress — a Judy Davis type, with a filament of real hysteria?
Maybe. But Blanchett does end up carrying scenes that would trip up a less polished performer. She’s wonderfully funny in her next, in which she punches in a cell-phone number while chattering away to a poor, accommodating cabbie and then turns and says without missing a beat, “Can I have some privacy, please?” Her alarmingly statuesque posture, the uptilt of her head, the precision with which she holds her designer purse: This is Blanchett playing a woman playing an urban sophisticate. The powerful perfection of Blanchett’s mask makes you believe it could have truly subsumed whatever person was once beneath. Did Jasmine know her husband was defrauding investors? She didn’t want to—not with shopping and yoga and Pilates and all those charity events. She looks like a golden statuette. She was never meant to live in the real world.
If you know the work of Allen (or Streetcar), you can predict every pipe-dream-shattering confrontation — every turn, twist, and resolution. But Baldwin and Michael Stuhlbarg as a shnooky dentist do much with their little, and you can never, ever predict Hawkins. She’s so much Blanchett’s opposite — raw, goosey, spontaneous — it’s no wonder Allen had to make them adopted sisters. She’s paired with three different actors: Andrew Dice Clay, surprisingly affecting as her first husband; Cannavale, who’s always entertaining but doesn’t rise above his sub-Kowalski part; and Louis C.K., who proves himself a sensitive actor even with lines that stop just at the point when in an episode of Louie they’d leap to the next level of poetic, cringeworthy self-revelation.
This review first appeared in the July 29, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.