Opens Fri., Aug. 9 at Harvard Exit and Sundance Cinemas. Rated PG-13. 98 minutes.
Woody Allen is no stranger to messing with the classics. Play It Again, Sam made a comedy of Casablanca. Love and Death played Tolstoy for laughs. His short story “The Kugelmass Episode” even appropriates the figure of Emma Bovary. And all those efforts worked, in part because the author was reaching up to his artistic gods. He was kidding, a little nebbish on the sidelines. Yet there’s nothing comic about the downfall of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, the inspiration for Blue Jasmine. Significantly, nowhere in the film’s ads or press notes is it called a comedy, though it earns many chuckles. And for the first time in his series of historical mashups, the 78-year-old director actually seems like the senior partner, Tennessee Williams being his near contemporary—not part of a distant pantheon. All of which makes Blue Jasmine an awkward mismatch of pathos and ridicule, less fusion than simple borrowing.
Grafted onto the story of delusional trophy wife Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a Madoff-like fable of the recent financial crisis. In flashback, we see her husband (Alec Baldwin) buying her consent with luxury while he swindles the Montauk set. What did Jasmine know of all those trusts and LLCs in her name? Allen leaves that for late in the film to resolve. By that time, she’s broke and living with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in a shabby San Francisco apartment. Jasmine is a snob who needs to be brought low, a task relished by Ginger, her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), and her ex (a surprisingly sympathetic Andrew Dice Clay), the truth-teller of the piece. Of Jasmine’s past deeds, which likely ruined his marriage to Ginger, he says, “Some people, they don’t put things behind so easily.” But Jasmine prefers the self-induced amnesia of Xanax and vodka. Though she eventually admits to being a class-climber, having ditched her birth name (Jeanette) and blue-collar family.
As Blue Jasmine toggles between Jasmine’s gilded past and fallen present, you wonder about Allen’s own class anxieties. Born a Brooklyn nobody, living on Fifth Avenue today, he rubs shoulders with the likes of Madoff and his duped investors. Yet he clearly sides with Ginger and her two Stanley Kowalskis. Ginger may make bad choices about men (Louis CK is another), but she’s honest about her mistakes, unlike Jasmine. That the two sisters were both adopted brings an odd genetic twist to the story—but like everything else in the script, Allen never develops those notions. As with Baz Luhrmann’s recent The Great Gatsby, you sense that Allen wants to say something about our present culture of inequality and fraud, but he only dabbles, never probes.
Blanchett has played Blanche before, and she’s very good with her character’s fragile obliviousness. Yet perhaps because that character isn’t entirely Allen’s creation, he doesn’t finally know what to do with her. Jasmine is more foolish than evil, but there’s nothing funny about her final punishment.