Woody Allen has been working for so long - if one takes into account writing jokes for NYC papers since the early 1950's, but in the movies it's been since 1965 - that it's easy to take for granted what he puts out, especially as it's at the average rate of a film a year since the 70's. And so it is with Blue Jasmine, his 44th directed film, another relationship drama (with speckles of comedy of the dark variety, like really squirm-in-your-seat variety) about neurotic people who can't seem to find the right significant other. Only this time there are two aspects to the film that are a bit different than what Allen has done before, or variations: A Streetcar Named Desire (and Tennessee Williams' flavor of man/woman discontent only transferred to New York and San Francisco, with a touch of Elia Kazan melodramatics) and the financial collapse in the US.
How is a film that is presumably and mostly about a character, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), who moves in with her sister after her late husband (Alec Baldwin) went to prison and has to find herself on her feet again? Well, the 'husband went to prison' part is part of it - how Jasmine lost her way and her marriage was that she didn't see the forest full of trees (couldn't or wouldn't is a question that is left to the audience without too much ambiguity): her husband was a wealthy wheeler-and-dealer, we're never really told what exactly, and perhaps all the better for it, aside from it being with companies with big stocks and bigger profits to move around.
He was also a crook who embezzled and did bad deals left and right when not having multiple affairs with women he'd come across, be they a girl working in a gym or a lawyer (the scene, rather late in the film in flashback, one of many, when Jasmine discovers he had been having an affair, and that it was much more than one as confirmed by a friend, is devastating... and yet very darkly funny, or may be if it isn't so tragic). So then comes the humiliation of losing everything, and the only choice being to start over with her (adopted) sister in San Francisco, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who has her own man problems (split up from her husband, played by Andrew Dice Clay, now with the sorta-brutish Bobby Cannavale).
What one comes away with in Allen's film though is this character study of Jasmine, and her sister Ginger as a kind of B-plot (also featuring the great Louis CK in a fun little role as another beau), is a sharp difference in class. I have to wonder if Allen wrote this script in the heat of all of the Occupy Wall Street happenings a couple of years ago, and of course in the wake of the financial collapse. What happens, hypothetically, to one of the wives of these crooks that were part of the banks or lending schemes or whatever it might be? How are families affected? (There is a minor plot too with Baldwin's son, though this is more of a plot device than a fully-fleshed character, which is fine for the sake of the story).
What makes it so fascinating is that Allen doesn't let Jasmine off the hook really, by a long-shot. She knew what was up, or if she really didn't know then ignorance is bliss and yet it's own sort of punishment (reaping what you sow is a theme throughout the film, if not intentionally), and Jasmine's big conflict is still trying to shake her past, which lead to a nervous breakdown as well as an unfortunate tendency to pop pills, drink vodka, and ramble to oneself (or to others, whether they listen or not).
This key question drives the film, can there be a good change for Jasmine? Is there a chance for her - and it comes at around the halfway/two-thirds mark with Stellan Sarsgaard (cast because, frankly, he's meant to be the super handsome n'er do-well and potential congressman that attracts Jasmine so, and pulls what he's asked to do well). But there is an underlying thread that keeps the emotional through-line interesting which is this class thing, and it's not just with the glossy-empty-deviant depictions of the wealthy in New York (or as Jasmine says where she's from, "New York. Park Avenue" as if it's a borough).
Hawkins (charming and fragile and interesting always to watch here), Cannavale and Clay are the "working-class" characters, and while it nears veering into its own stereotypical depictions - people impressed by wealth but very unforgiving of those who do wrong with it, and let out anger and emotions like atom bombs - though some of the strongest actors of the bunch. For Cannavale, playing the "Brando" part (which I'll get to more in a moment), it's a given he delivers a strong, unironically funny-and-heartbreaking performance.
But Clay is the revelation among the supporting players as a man who has his world of hurt, and his own values, so that when he comes at a pivotal point in the film his presence alone is enough to show the sharp divide between someone like him or Jasmine. He's gruff, tough, and full of "I-don't-give-a-f***', but not in the caricature we've seen him (or avoided seeing him) in stand-up comedy.
So there is the class and social commentary aspect - something which, among other films in 2013 dealing with such subject matter (i.e. Great Gatsby, Elysium, The Lone Ranger, yes, that film), this towers above in terms of giving believable characters and a construct that makes the society fully believable they're in - but there's 'Streetcar' as well, with Allen in jazz-musician mode riffing off of the four main players; Blanche (Blanchett), Stella (Hawkins), Stanley (Cannavale), and Mitch (Sarsgaard).
It's not too far a stretch to see Jasmine, in one of her trance-like ruminations on falling in love to the song "Blue Moon" for her to slip in a bit about "depending on the kindness of strangers." It's that type, but like Allen has done in the past riffing off of famous works - La Strada, 8 1/2, Wild Strawberries, Russian literature - he makes it his own due to his bittersweet take on the human condition and how easy and difficult it is to fall in love, usually with a man who is either wrong or just right enough to get by, maybe, or not really, and also the other way around.
It's easy enough to say Blanchett is great here, because she is. She just embodies this character, a woman who has made her own lonely state of being. She makes Jasmine bigger than life when she needs (or wants) to be, but also brings her back down to Earth when she has to pause (or try to, it's hard for her to do) in thinking about what had gone so bloody wrong.
She's fiery, desperate, crazed, and genuinely affectionate as a character, and yet Allen makes it complicated (in a superb way) by making her oh so attached to material things - her luggage which is high-quality, and that she can't get rid of since it has her initials on it - or not fully grasping how to get back into a role in society when before she can take a class on-line to be an interior decorating she takes it upon herself to take a class to learn how to use the computer(!) Blanchett gives every line Allen has passion and commitment, even when it's talking to Ginger's boys about her marital troubles. "You know the song Blue Moon," she says to the boys, who obviously have not heard it but listen patiently, as if listening to a crazy person. Sad but true.