Cate Blanchett shifts mental planes –within scenes and before our eyes — in Woody Allen’s character study “Blue Jasmine.” When Jasmine, a disgraced New York socialite, does not find her circumstances agreeable, she mentally exits them. Even when surrounded by other people.
Blanchett is just gone, her expression distant and clouded. Allen sometimes helps the actress’s journey with flashbacks showing us where Jasmine went. But mostly, it’s the remarkable Blanchett simply checking out, as Jasmine starts speaking to herself, re-enacting conversations from long ago.
Then Jasmine returns from her fog, straightens her Chanel jacket, and goes on acting superior.
As “Blue Jasmine” progresses, Blanchett shows the toll of those mental trips back to the spacious Park Avenue apartment and casual-yet-elegant beach house where Jasmine and her financier husband (Alec Baldwin) once entertained Manhattan’s elite.
The effect is incremental. Blanchett makes Jasmine a tiny bit wearier each time her consciousness drags her from her happy times back to her current home, a cute but cramped San Francisco Mission District apartment where she’s staying with her divorced sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and Ginger’s two sons (Daniel Jenks and Max Rutherford, who is from Elk Grove).
Jasmine lost it all — her fortune, her ability to cope —when her Bernie Madoff-like crook husband went to prison. After undergoing intense psychiatrist treatment, she now self-medicates with vodka, too much Xanax and illusions she can recapture her old way of life.
Jasmine is unlikable, but Blanchett makes you feel her pain, anyway, because she’s so subtly yet devastatingly good at showing that pain, and Jasmine’s attempts — some conscious, some sub — to evade it.
There is not a false nor overwrought note to her performance. That’s saying something, since she’s playing, essentially, a 21st century, Park Avenue mix of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Du Bois and Scarlett O’Hara (Jasmine takes “thinking about it tomorrow” to the extreme).
Leigh was hot-blooded and played things on the surface, so overwrought was the next step. Blanchett (who played Blanche on Broadway) starts with a base line of chilliness. This makes her perfect for Jasmine, whose scandal is financial, not sexual.
The Jasmine seen in flashbacks — the lady who lunches and complains because she must entertain the blue-collar Ginger and Ginger’s then-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) when they visit New York — is not a reach for Blanchett.
But the Jasmine in San Francisco is the product of a highly accomplished performance. As Jasmine falters, Blanchett warms up, and the audience warms up to her, but not too much. That’s the tricky part of the performance. She makes Jasmine vulnerable without making her sympathetic.
“Blue Jasmine” will be remembered for Blanchett, but it’s also a good Woody Allen movie. Allen snapped out of whatever befell him while making last year’s terrible “To Rome With Love,” a disappointment after 2011’s delightful “Midnight in Paris.”
“Jasmine” marks Allen’s return to filmmaking in the United States after several years abroad, and also a rare occasion on which Allen, whose scripts usually are timeless-bordering-on-anachronistic, addresses nearly current affairs. If you wonder how those money guys involved in New York financial scandals — and the loved ones who enjoyed the bounty — live with themselves, Allen has an answer: badly.
Jasmine is not sympathetic because Allen does not want her to be sympathetic, because she represents a mean world.
That’s not to say “Jasmine” is an overly serious film, or even a straight drama.
Jasmine’s inability to relate to her sister’s blue-collar world elicits laughs. Just because Jasmine must depend on the kindness of her sister doesn’t mean she can hide her disdain for Ginger’s decorating choices.
Ginger insists Jasmine find a job, which she does, as a dental office receptionist. The dental patients’ finicky behavior, and Jasmine’s lack of patience with it, draws laughs.
Hawkins, the wonderful British actress from “Happy Go Lucky,” struggles at times with an American accent and occasionally appears inappropriately jumpy. But she exudes warmth and even lends hints of residual admiration to scenes with Blanchett. It’s as if Ginger looked up to her glamorous sister for too long to be able to stop now because Jasmine’s husband was a swindler and Jasmine is impossible.
Jasmine picks on Ginger about always choosing “losers” like Jasmine’s current boyfriend, mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and her ex-husband, handyman Augie (Clay). Jasmine picked a loser as well. He was just rich and handsome (Baldwin’s at his snakecharmer best in flashbacks to the couple’s lush life).
Allen, who previously shot “Take the Money and Run” and “Play It Again Sam” in San Francisco, offers a less-rarefied city than most filmmakers show. “Blue Jasmine” follows its working-class characters to the foggy avenues and Ocean Beach. Ginger lives on unglamorous South Van Ness Avenue.
The buttery cinematography (here by Javier Aguirresarobe) for which Allen is known is bestowed more often on flashbacks to Jasmine’s life in New York.
Allen also brought New York to the Bay Area by casting New York-archetypal actors Clay and Cannavale as San Franciscans. Clay underplays Augie, and shows surprising chemistry with Hawkins, but the idea of him as a San Franciscan takes getting used to.
You never grow used to Chili, who sees Jasmine as a hurdle in his plan to move in with Ginger. The ardor Cannavale lends to Chili’s pursuit of Ginger distracts in its aggressiveness.
The non-rapist Stanley Kowalski of the piece, Chili wears undershirts for casual nights at home. When he goes out, he wears outfits that look as if Ed Hardy and 1980s Brooklyn threw up on them.
Actually, Chili doesn’t seem like he is from San Francisco or New York. You only see guys like him in movies.
* * * CAST: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay
DIRECTOR: Woody Allen
Rated PG-13 (mature thematic material, language and sexual content)
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB