Have you ever heard a friend say that to you about the person you love? Were they referring to state of the person’s finances? If so, well… when it comes to friends, you could do better.
“You could do better” is the kind of thing Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis tends to say when she encounters people whose affection for each other is based on something other than money.
She even says it to her own sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) when she meets Ginger’s meatball of a boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine’s wealth — the reward of marrying Hal Francis, a Madoff-style investment banker (Alec Baldwin) — has gone to her head and brought a wrecking ball with it, smashing up her discernment, her capacity for compassion, and her conscience. Now, ruined by her husband’s dishonest business practices, she’s broke, she’s burdened with debt, she’s spending her way into greater debt, and she’s freely handing out condemnation for those who have learned to enjoy more satisfaction with less income.
In Manhattan flashbacks, we are treated to scenes of Hal and Jasmine together. They enjoyed spacious luxury, lavish parties, and a life of leisure that Jamine herself can hardly believe. So she tells stories — relentlessly — of how all of this good fortune came to be, until it sounds like a lie she’s trying to believe. We also observe that Hal has about as much of a conscience as that other famous big-screen Hal — the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like that soulless computer, he’s a smooth talker. But he’s primarily self-interested, engaging in extramarital affairs and dishonest business practices, as if his money will serve as an airbag whenever the inevitable collision comes.
But most of the movie follows Jasmine’s time in San Francisco, where she takes post-ruination refuge in Ginger’s apartment and acknowledges its middle-class decor as if it were some kind of bold choice to develop a “homey” aesthetic. That’s about as nice as she can be. Witnesses flashes of human tenderness and genuine affection, she cloaks her jealousy with bitter condescension, terrorizing Ginger’s community like a wicked queen threatening her subjects. She suffers breakdowns caused by drugs meant to fend off breakdowns. She cringes at any casual human attempts to engage her in flirtation or conversation. She shops for things she can’t afford. And she dodges any attempts to help her face the ugly truth of her complicity in her husband’s crimes.
She’s most interesting when she’s drawn into talking about her dreams and aspirations — she hopes to get an interior decorator degree online, but only after she “learns computers” — because that’s when we see flickers of realization that her years of living in squalor and denial have rendered her weak, uneducated, self-righteous, superficial, and incapable of taking care of herself. In that sense, Blue Jasmine works as a sort of fictional sequel to The Queen of Versailles.
By now, Woody Allen’s audience has learned to manage their expectations. His large casts of characters always provide a spectrum of sensibilities: simple and idealistic characters who are doomed to suffer; neurotic characters whose talkative jitters broadcast their fears, their delusions, their rationalizations for screwy behavior; and monsters preoccupied with money and ego. He throws them into close quarters until it’s clear that dreams are made to go false, ideals are made to be broken, marriages are made to collapse, and affairs are sure to hurt everyone within their blast radius. I can’t remember the last time a Woody Allen film made me really think beyond the simple platitudes of wages-of-sin morality plays.
But it’s unusual for Allen to focus so directly on the damaging effects of wealth. Normally, he’s preoccupied with the damage done when men and women choose to cast caution to the wind in their love lives and sexual shenanigans. But his constant curiosity about the wages of sin makes interviews like this one, in which he consistently confesses a belief that life is pretty much meaningless, fascinating.
I wish he’d consider the limitations of his own definitions for love. While Jasmine’s vocabulary of taking “a step up” by dating someone with more money is clearly delusional, Ginger herself seems to consider love as a matter of getting what you want. She defends her choice to “settle” for her goofy boyfriend Chili by saying that, well, at least he’s cute and fun. But she’s easily seduced by the flattery of a married man, and only questions her own unfaithfulness when she realizes that he’s a liar. If you’re looking for somebody who shows any sign of caring about serving someone else, about love as an act of giving instead of giving, well… keep looking.
Whatever the director has or hasn’t learned, he goes on proving that he knows how to give actors a good time. I suspect he’ll score yet another nomination or two for the juicy material he’s given his actors here. Well, some of them, at least.
Blanchett, whose I’m-acting-as-hard-as-I-can theatricality almost always prevents me from believing in her characters, turns in a made-to-order “Oscar-worthy” performance — a tour de force of twitches and meltdowns and tantrums. She’s a scene-chewing velociraptor, most impressive when she’s turned loose in scenes of domestic middle-class routines. We haven’t seen this side of Blanchett since she went up against Judi Dench in that clash of the titans called Notes On a Scandal. In her review at RogerEbert.com, Susan Wloszczyna says that Blanchett “just may get a chance at another trophy with this electric performance that makes an essentially despicable woman utterly fascinating as she sidesteps reality at every turn….” But the very fact that we’re all sitting there thinking “Isn’t she impressive?” becomes the chief obstacle to anything like suspension of disbelief.
By contrast, Sally Hawkins steals the movie with her endearingly casual turn as Ginger. She plays softer, more playful notes, and her chemistry with Cannavale — more enjoyable than he’s been since The Station Agent — is surprising.
Peter Sarsgaard is also winningly relaxed in his role as a would-be congressman who, for some mysterious reason, falls for Jasmine. Strangely enough, even an aspiring politician seems like a human being when seen standing next to Jasmine. And Andrew Dice Clay? Yep, as Ginger’s ex-husband Augie — a blue-collar repairman blessed with chumpy sincerity — even he has more gravity than Jasmine, due to the chumpy sincerity of the repairman he plays.
The only completely comical performance in the film comes from Michael Stuhlbarg. As a dentist who hires Jasmine as a front-desk assistant just so he can make a pass at her, Stuhlbarg finds the halfway point between his creepy alien in Men in Black 3 and his socially incapable schoolteacher in A Serious Man. He’s wonderfully unbearable. But his character is something of an accessory in a cast that is otherwise meaningfully entangled.
The film’s only casting mistake is to introduce the brilliant Louis C.K. as a forgettable love interest for Ginger who appears just often enough for people to chuckle in recognition and then to wonder why the director didn’t give him a chance to do anything worthwhile.
I guess that’s what’s ultimately so disappointing — again — about Allen’s post-’80s work. It feels like he has just enough energy to rack up some ideas, to pick up the pool cue, to break, and then watch the balls scatter, some of them occasionally dropping with a satisfying “plunk” into the pockets. After that, I’m left with the sense that the stage was set for a great game, but the players lost interest somewhere along the way.
Take, for example, the scene of Hal’s arrest. That’s a scenario in which The Great Woody Allen might have found great fodder for comedy. Here, it plays out matter-of-factly, squandering a chance for Alec Baldwin to justify his presence in the film. Really, couldn’t all kinds of non-celebrity actors have played this Donald Trump clone?
Don’t get me wrong — the film’s worth seeing for its winning performances and memorably zany clashes. I enjoyed the company of these characters.
But come on, Woody. More often than not, these scenes leave me with a sense of missed opportunity. Take your time on your next screenplay. Find a more interesting story. I’m not saying that you need to slow down because you’re getting older. I’m saying that if you did slow down, take several years on a screenplay, and throw your characters into some unfamiliar scenarios, well… you might come up with a movie that amounts to much more than a mildly enjoyable diversion. You may not watch your own movies after you finish them, but I remember Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Bullets Over Broadway. And I still believe… you could do better.