“Money is better than poverty,” Woody Allen once wrote, “if only for financial reasons.” His new film, Blue Jasmine, concerns a woman, Jasmine, who learns this lesson when her husband is revealed to be a Bernie Madoff-like con man. Money wouldn’t solve Jasmine’s problems, but it would have bought her a hotel room, at least, so she wouldn’t have to crash with her broke sister and her sister’s needy boyfriend and kids.
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Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett, arrives on a first-class flight from New York with a suite of Louis Vuitton luggage and a fistful of Xanax, headed to the San Francisco home of her sister, Ginger, played by the wonderful Sally Hawkins. Jasmine hates the neighborhood, the apartment, the kids, and Ginger’s boyfriend, Chili, even though he’s played by Bobby Cannavale (Third Watch, Boardwalk Empire), our generation’s greatest lovable lughead. Jasmine isn’t just a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown; she’s in free fall, clinging to delusions of privilege while talking to herself and to visions of her long-gone husband, Hal, a slick Wall Street crook played by Alec Baldwin.
Baldwin’s white-collar cretin, a satire of Bernie Madoff, is only a minor flashback figure—less a character than a symbol of the excess Jasmine once enjoyed. The film is all about Blanchett’s Jasmine, and continually comes back to Allen’s most abiding obsessions: wealth and women. Blue Jasmine is a return to Allen’s Bergman-influenced female films, including Interiors and Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s emotionally grounded in a way that his work hasn’t been since, perhaps, 1992’s Husbands and Wives. That film was about the men, while here the stage is cleared for Blanchett to deliver a performance bristling with raw nerves and destined for Oscar consideration.
The script isn’t showy, and there’s an uncharacteristic absence of existential zingers. Some lines are on-the-nose, and that seems to be the intent. When Jasmine says, “I’m thinking about going back to school” for the fifth time, you begin to pity her. There are terrific smaller performances by Louis C.K. and, more surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay. As a desperate dentist, Michael Stuhlbarg is as pathetic as he is creepy. As a doomed love interest, Peter Sarsgaard is tragic.
Blanchett’s Jasmine may be a narcissistic motormouth, but she’s never just a punch line. Instead, she’s a lonely woman whose every coping mechanism—remodeling, lunch with the girls, charity events, spa treatments—comes with a price tag she can no longer afford. She’s a 1 Percenter ripe for mockery, but all Allen and her sister give her is empathy. Bereft of the support and comfort of her husband’s wealth, Jasmine has gotten lost in her pain. Ginger feels this, and through Hawkins’s pitying eyes, so do we.
It’s easy enough to mock Allen’s personal life, his predilection for young things, and his rose-colored vision of wealthy New York. But films like Blue Jasmine prove the 77-year-old is perceptive about the women he fetishizes, too. We hear very little about figures such as Ruth Madoff who get caught in the wake of powerful men’s crimes. When we do, the wife’s happiness or unhappiness is almost always explained away by the man’s transgression. Allen gives Jasmine more respect than that. She’s more than collateral damage. Even if she found a million bucks, it wouldn’t save her. In Allen’s fatalistic worldview, life is chaos and no one thing—religion, love, work—is intrinsically meaningful, not even money.