The first utterances you hear in Woody Allen's new picture, Blue Jasmine, come from a manic First Class passenger who blabs on and on about herself. That passenger is title character Jasmine, whose marriage to Madoff avatar Hal (Alec Baldwin) is now as finished as her 1% coffers, and who's going nowhere fast.
She's also played by Cate Blanchett, which helps explain why we not only put up with her snobbish affectations, we can't get enough. Jasmine only becomes more riveting as she descends on her sister Ginger's (Sally Hawkins) shabby San Francisco apartment, where she hopes against hope to ascend back to the lifestyle she led as a Manhattan socialite.
A pitch-perfect blend of comedy and drama, Blue Jasmine is essential viewing for Allen fans. But Shoah historians may also be intrigued. To what extent was Jasmine complicit in Hal's luxury-affording crimes? How much responsibility did she bear for ruining Ginger and brother-in-law Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) financially when she brought them into Hal's schemes? Is turning a blind eye -- or denial -- the same as not knowing?
At a recent press conference, Blanchett compared her character that royal bungler from Greek tragedy, Oedipus. "(He) marries his mother, for Godssake!," razzed the 44-year-old Oscar winner. "But it's a tragedy, because he does it unwittingly." To the contrary, she noted, Jasmine is "the unwitting agent of her own downfall in some way."
Flashing back to Jasmine's genteel past and forward to her swampy present, the drama evokes no less a fragile soul than Blanche Dubois. Allen drew from A Streetcar Named Desire down to the Gallic posings of "Jasmine"-cum Blanche, a moniker she'd upgraded from "Jeanette." Having played Tennessee Williams' poupée of self-delusion (to stout acclaim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), Blanchett wondered aloud, "Is Blanche a compulsive liar, or is the world just set out to stamp out the poetry in her soul?" She mused that there might be "something intensely dysfunctional about the world in which [Blanche] finds herself," astutely shifting the probe to the culture that breeds such fantasists. Allen's update vests Ginger with fantasies of her own that prevent her from registering her sister's more inconvenient shortcomings. "Everyone has issues and everyone is deluding themselves to some degree."
Enacting Jasmine, "warts and all," gave Blanchett a lot to drink in. "She's on a cocktail of various different things. Is she on Xanax? When has she not had a drink? But in the end it's the internal cocktail that was really interesting to play. She's so riddled with guilt and rage and fear."
A more productive strain of fear fueled the shoot itself. Blanchett spoke twinklingly about Allen's genius, though she conceded that the god of timing and mood could also be a harsh god. "The audience has already left the theater" vied with "That was awful" as the director's less fondly remembered remarks.
With Blue Jasmine, the 77-year-old auteur dispells any frets about his acuity that To Rome with Love may have touched off, and offers a fable for our time that's as philosophical as Crimes & Misdemeanors, as white-knuckle-inducing as Match Point and as compulsively watchable as (Oscar-winning) Midnight in Paris.