Blue Jasmine (2013): Cate Blanchett’s Oscar Card–Woody Allen’s Strongest Film in Years

Blue Jasmine has gained a lot of momentum over the past week, what with major nominations from the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and Writers Guild of America (WGA) for its original screenplay.

Having completed a whole European film tour with an uneven series of works, shot in France, U.K., Spain, and Italy, coming home, that is, to returning to America, proves to be a welcome move for Woody Allen’s new, highly entertaining drama, “Blue Jasmine,” which is his best work in decades–perhaps since “Crimes and Misdemeanors” in 1989 or “Bullets Over Broadway” in 1994.

The combination of the great actress Cate Blanchett (in her first appearance for Allen) and the great city of San Francisco is particularly beneficial for “Blue Jasmine,” which may signal yet another new phase in the auteur’s five-decade career.

Though “Blue Jasmine” doesn’t resemble the early Allen movies shot in California, “Take the Money and Run,” in 1969, which he directed, and “Play It Again, Sam,” in 1972, which he wrote and starred in but did not helm (it was directed by Herbert Ross), just watching the vistas brings a nice, nostalgic smile to your face of a bygone era.

The always brilliant Cate Blanchett shines as the latest neurotic Allen heroine, taking an honorable place alongside other strong and disturbed female characters, played by the likes of Dianne Keaton, Mia Farrow, Judy Davis, and Dianne Wiest, Gena Rowlands, among others. Allen had personal (romantic) bond with most of the above, and perhaps his lack of such involvement with the happily married Blanchett accounts for the strong emotional impact.

Is there anything Blanchette cannot do by way of range or genre?

Blanchett plays a desperate New York socialite who heads out West after losing her husband, their money, her self-esteem. Like other Allen heroines, she struggles with establishing a new identity, romantic desire, and upward mobility before landing on her feet as a “different” femme.

Coming right after the mediocre “To Rome With Love,” which was a critical and commercial flop (it grossed only $16 million in the U.S.), “Blue Jasmine” impresses in many ways, even if it is not as easily accessible or commercial as “Midnight in Paris,” Allen’s Oscar-winning and most-viewed film to date (generating over $50 million in the U.S. alone). But Allen is in the good professional hands of Sony Picture Classics, which has released most of his features over the past decade, and is platforming the latest one July 26.

Purists will be engaged in conducting detailed comparisons to (and discussions of) Tennessee Williams’ most famous play and Kazan’s 1951 Oscar-winning masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which “Blue Jasmine” updates, criticizes, and satirizes, all of the above effectively, which is not a minor feat. It’s a testament to Allen that “Blue Jasmine” can be enjoyed on its own merits, without knowledge of and intertextual allusions to Williams-Kazan collaboration. I doubt if many young moviegoers have seen the Williams play or Kazan’s seminal picture, which boasts the best screen performance given by Marlon Brando.

The new film also contains touches of the auteur’s 2008 Spanish-set comedy, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” for which Penelope Cruz won a well- deserved Supporting Actress Oscar. With some luck and good memory of the Academy voters in January, Blanchett should get an Oscar nomination, too, though decidedly in the lead category, as Best Actress.

One of the strengths of “Blue Jasmine” is that the film is at once a star vehicle for the enormously diverse Blanchett, who dominates every scene she is in, and a pleasant ensemble piece in which there is not a single bad or mediocre performance. Kudos to Allen’s loyal casting director, Juliet Taylor.

Jasmine is not a feminist, but she goes through an identity crisis and is on the brink of descending into madness, which may explain why she resorts to Jeanette, her birth name, Jeanette. Upwardly mobile, she finds ways to deceive others as well as herself that she is still a woman of wealth and privilege.  Though financially broke, she still flies First Class. And when her sympathetic sister inquires, “How could you afford it?”  Jasmine simply says: I don’t know. I just did.”

The similarities with Williams’s legendary play are most obvious in the sisters’ complex but loving relationship: Blanche and Stella in “Streetcar,” and her Jeanette and Ginger (Sally Hawkins in top form), into whose apartment she moves when she is single, broke, and desolate.

In Allen’s version, the femmes were adopted from different biological parents, which may be Allen’s easy way of suggesting of why they lack resemblance in physical appearance and personality.

Ginger, who is cool, laid-back, and free-spirited, works at an unlikely job, at a supermarket (rings false for such an intelligent woman). She is raising two kids from a previous marriage, and is engaged to the macho tough Chili (Bobby Cannavale, handsome and sexy). In contrast, Jasmine is more educated and refined, but she is also pretentious and self-delusional.

Unlike Kazan, who used a few brief flashbacks, Allen resorts to a narrative structure that relies on Jeanette’s past, specifically her luxurious life in East Hampton, where she resided with her businessman husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, who actually has a house there!). It is no surprise that the “marriage is on the rocks,” to borrow from Williams, due to Hal’s persistent cheating, in both domestic and business matters.

Among his many victims were Ginger and her then-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), who made the mistake of entrusting Hal with $200,000 in lottery winnings. With limited career opportunities, Jasmine-Jeanette works as a receptionist for a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and takes computer classes, the first steps toward a career in interior design. (The false note in Allen’s otherwise sharply observed and quasi-realistic comedy is the occupations that he chose for his protagonists)

To his detractors and nay-sayers, Allen, who just has turned 78 in December, proves that he still is a powerful filmmaker with many more stories to tell–and craftsmanship to match.