This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: "Blue Jasmine" can be funny; at times painfully so. But it would be a mistake to go into the film thinking you are about to see a typical Woody Allen comedy.
True, like most good Allen movies, "Blue Jasmine" is a witty psychological gabfest about people who are too smart for their own good. But the fine and complex new film is a lot more than that.
At the center of the film is a mesmerizing performance by Cate Blanchett as a deeply superficial, selfish snob named Jasmine. Jasmine would be easy to hate if not for the moments when the remarkable Blanchett lets us peer into the woman's soul, and we see nothing but fear and confusion.
Married to a rich Wall Street blowhard (Alec Baldwin) and loving her luxurious life in Manhattan and the Hamptons, she stifles her suspicions that her husband is a scam artist -- until he is hauled off to jail for doing a Madoff on his rich friends, plus a few poor relatives. That leaves Jasmine homeless and virtually broke.
Desperate, Jasmine flies (first class) to San Francisco and shows up with a pile of fancy luggage at the walkup flat of Ginger, the free-spirited stepsister she has always treated like trash. Ginger, played by the wonderful British actress Sally Hawkins, works as a store clerk and has a heart of gold but a purse of copper, and Jasmine discovers to her horror that she has to get a job. Her adventures as a harried receptionist to a horny dentist are classic Woody Allen scenes of amorous cross-purposes.
Jasmine's love life may be populated by buffoons, but Ginger has a macho but sweet boyfriend named Chili (Bobby Cannavale). One afternoon, Chili and his blue-collar buddies are watching the fights on Ginger's television and Jasmine walks into the room and tries to get them to hold it down.
As I watched the scene transpire at a screening last month, knowing nothing about "Blue Jasmine" ahead of time, I realized I was in the middle of another scene and another movie entirely. Jasmine, fluttering about, was painfully reminiscent of Blanche DuBois intruding on Stanley Kowalski's poker game in his sweltering New Orleans flat, and it seemed clear that Woody Allen was giving us his updated version of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," a tale of two very different sisters. And with that realization came the further insight that we were meant to take Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine" more seriously than, say, we were to take Mira Sorvino in "Mighty Aphrodite."
From that point, the plot continues to follow roads already taken by Williams -- there's even, briefly, a white knight (Peter Sarsgaard) who might rescue the fair lady in distress -- and we come to realize that Jasmine is close to the edge and is in danger of taking a big fall. The Woody Allen character she is most reminiscent of is the psychologically bedeviled woman played by Charlotte Rampling in Allen's Bergmanesque 1980 film "Stardust Memories."
"Blue Jasmine" can be richly humorous, but it is also ineffably sad, and as serious and meaningful as anything Allen has done since 1989's "Crimes and Misdemeanors." Like "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Blue Jasmine" is not so much a tragedy as a tragic farce.
The ending of "Blue Jasmine" hearkens to the final moments of "Streetcar," but is perhaps even sadder, suggesting we can no longer depend even on the kindness of strangers.