Blue Jasmine Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin. Directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
As the title character in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett gives the closest thing to a vintage Gena Rowlands performance the movies have seen in many years. It’s an aggressively strident turn, showy and alienating but always magnetic, and it’s complemented—or offset, depending on how you look at it—by equally loud work from Mike Leigh veteran Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) as Jasmine’s sister, Ginger. Together, Jasmine and Ginger represent Allen’s typically facile sense of America’s class distinctions, in a film that’s been fashioned as a sort of modern-day A Streetcar Named Desire. That’s always been the problem with Allen’s more overtly serious efforts—even at their best, they feel reheated, just riffs on the classics.
Born Jeanette, Jasmine is the widow of a Bernie Madoff-esque white-collar criminal (Alec Baldwin), who was arrested for fraud and committed suicide in prison. Her entire ritzy life having been seized by the government, she arrives in San Francisco to stay with Ginger, who puts off plans to move in with her lunkheaded boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). Tension between the sisters is gradually revealed, via a series of flashbacks, as the result of Ginger and her ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) having invested a $200,000 lottery windfall in the same Ponzi scheme that ruined Jasmine. Meanwhile, Jasmine concocts multiple lies about her situation to attract a wealthy suitor (Peter Sarsgaard) and encourages Ginger to ditch her uncouth beau in favor of a more upwardly mobile sound engineer (Louis C.K.) she met at a party.
Though Allen grew up working-class, he’s been rich for so long now that he really doesn’t have any sense of how the other half lives, which makes the Ginger-related threads a bit embarrassing. (Hawkins gives a rendition of a crass American that gets the accent right but is otherwise heavily based on English norms.) Nor does Allen seem to have much sense of how Wall Street tycoons operate. That leaves Jasmine herself as the movie’s sole point of interest, and while Blanchett does a tremendous job of making this largely insufferable woman’s struggle for redefinition compelling, she can’t quite reconcile the character’s past and present behavior—the film’s treatment of incipient mental illness, in particular, tends to be dramatically convenient rather than psychologically acute. Tennessee Williams can rest easy.