By Skip Sheffield
Woody Allen has painted a minor masterpiece called “Blue Jasmine.” He did not do it alone.
Much of the credit goes to Australian actress Cate Blanchett, who gives the performance of a lifetime as Jasmine, a New York socialite falling to pieces.
Hovering over “Blue Jasmine” is the ghost of playwright Tennessee Williams and his play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which is about a once-affluent Southern Belle named Blanche DuBois.
Many writers have pounced on the similarities of Jasmine (born Jeannette) and Blanche, but they are really quite different.
Cate Blanchett knows this as well as anyone else, because she played Blanche DuBois on Broadway about five years ago. The biggest difference between the two characters is the setting. Blanche was in an idealized, fantasy-world Old South of New Orleans. Jasmine was in New York City circa the Bernie Madoff scandal.
The Bernie Madoff-like character is Hal Francis, played with smarmy charm (as he does so well) by Alec Baldwin.
Not only does Hal swindle gullible investors with promises of unbelievable profits, he lives high on the hog in the upper strata of Manhattan society and South Hampton smart set, with Jasmine his trophy wife. Worse, he is a serial cheater, and Jasmine refuses to acknowledge the clues. Instead she retreats farther into fantasy, babbling to herself as she descends.
Cate Blanchett is a woman of extraordinarily delicate, haunting beauty, but she allows herself to look, if not ugly, then pitiful as she loses all her material possessions and fair-weather friends and is reduced to begging her hard-working adopted sister Ginger (plucky British actress Sally Hawkins) to take her in to Ginger's modest, cluttered San Francisco apartment, which she shares with her two chubby, unruly sons and a loving but possessive boyfriend named Chili.
You could call Chili, played powerfully, proudly, yet with humorous vulnerability by Bobby Cannavale, as the Stanley Kowalski character. You would be wrong.
There is another character closer to Stanley Kowalski, the brutish character who shames and ridicules Blanch DuBois, yet lusts for her, and that is Ginger's first husband Augie, played by comedian Andrew Dice Clay. Clay's appearance is brief, but we get the impression Augie would give his snobbish, haughty sister-in-law a toss.
Not so with Chili. He truly loves Ginger, and though he is inarticulate and temperamental, as a character he is touching.
“Blue Jasmine” is equal parts comedy and tragedy, but the dark side gains and ultimately wins out as we watch Jasmine in her hopeless quest to become a working member of society. Her quest becomes farcical as she takes a job as receptionist for a nerdy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) who has the hots for her. Perish the thought Dr. Flicker could ever get to first base.
Jasmine is not above using her sex appeal in a vain attempt to restore herself to her former grandeur.
When she meets preppy diplomat Dwight Westlake (Peter Sarsgaard) she pours on the charm and come-hither sex. Sadly for her Dwight is no fool. Jasmine's lies and fabrications betray her and Dudley Do-Right explodes into righteous indignation.
Woody and Cate save the best for last. “Blue Jasmine” is told in a series of flashbacks, contrasting the glittery past with the grim, increasingly hopeless present. Toward the end we glimpse the real reason Jasmine is in her predicament. In a brief cameo as Jasmine's estranged son Danny Francis, Alden Ehrenreich cuts through the fantasy, lies and pretensions to expose Jasmine as she really is. It is not pretty. It will rip your heart out, for as unsympathetic as Jasmine is, Cate Blanchett makes us care for her and pity her and all other beautiful, superficial women who live like birds in gilded cages. “Blue Jasmine” makes you happy you are not rich like them, and for that reason it is a deeply satisfying film. One thing for sure: Cate Blanchett will be a heavy favorite at the Academy Awards.