Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 7, 2016)
Now 80, Woody Allen continues to crank out a new movie every year. 2013’s Blue Jasmine, a comedy-drama set in San Francisco, may end up as his last gasp at the Academy Awards, though, as it earned him a writing nomination. I wouldn’t count out Allen, but given the erratic nature of his output, Jasmine could become his Oscar swansong.
If so, it stands as a reasonable achievement. Jasmine comes with flaws but it has more than a few positives as well.
After her life hits some snarls, New York socialite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) flies to San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and regroup. Via flashback, we see what brought her to this point, as we follow her relationship with husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a financial expert who turned out to have been a swindler and an adulterer. Hal even ripped off Ginger and her now-former-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), a crime that left scars.
This places Jasmine in significant monetary and emotional depths that she tries to sort out while she also tries to connect with her estranged sister. The film mixes “present day” and flashbacks to let us follow the characters’ paths, some of which involve Ginger’s new fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale).
For years and years, most Allen flicks concentrated on New York, but he strayed from home back when he went to England for 2005’s Match Point. Since then, his successful efforts took place outside of the US, which made Jasmine the first US-based hit he had in a while.
I comment on this because Jasmine echoes some of the usual Allen tropes more than others in recent memory, mainly when we see the characters in NYC via flashbacks. Allen always seemed most at home when he depicted well-off NYC intellectuals, so those scenes put him in his element.
Other scenes feel less natural, and Blanchett’s acting doesn’t bring a lot of authenticity to the table. She gives a showy performance with a gaudy, unnatural American accent. Talented as she may be, Blanchett seems to have trouble with the sound of the American voice, and she never pulls off that part of the role.
On the other hand, Blanchett does add layers to the role that might not otherwise exist. Happily, she doesn’t play the traditional “Woody surrogate” we so often find in Allen’s movies, and Blanchett ensures that Jasmine doesn’t turn into a collection of quirks. I don’t buy the accent, but otherwise Blanchett seems fine.
It’s odd that Allen cast two non-Americans to play American sisters, but maybe it makes sense – in theory, we notice the artificiality of their accents less when neither is from the US. Hawkins pulls off the American vocals better than Blanchett and matches her as an actor, too. She doesn’t get nearly as much screen time but she manages to make an impact.
The film’s flashback structure works surprisingly well, as it allows the story to unfold in an interesting manner. Unfortunately, the characters seem less stimulating. Jasmine wants to tell a “culture clash” tale but it lacks much insight.
In particular, Jasmine seems awfully unlikable. Perhaps Allen doesn’t want the audience to care for her, but I get the impression we’re supposed to feel more compassion for her than we do. She comes across as such a self-absorbed spoiled rich girl that she never turns into a sympathetic character.
Really, Jasmine acts as an update on A Streetcar Named Desire. It veers in a different direction because it spells out Jasmine’s past while Blanche’s history remained less clearly stated, but the two share a lot of similarities.
I don’t view this influence as a bad thing, but I feel less enthralled with the manner in which Jasmine progresses, as it loses steam along the way. It rambles as it progresses, largely because it veers into Ginger’s story. That side of the tale doesn’t seem especially compelling; the movie works best with Jasmine at the center, whereas the Ginger scenes feel like a detour.
Even with those flaws, Jasmine manages to become a generally good movie. It could be better – and it doesn’t stand as one of Allen’s more memorable efforts – but it has enough going for it to become a mild success.