BLUE JASMINE Review: Separate Lives
In January 2012, I had the privilege of participating in an award-winning blogging event that deconstructed every aspect of Alfred Hitchcock‘s masterpiece, Vertigo (1958). My contribution to the event, hosted by The Lady Eve of The Lady Eve’s Reel Life, was an in-depth analysis of the importance of San Francisco as the setting for the film.
When I realized that Woody Allen‘s latest cinematic offering, Blue Jasmine, is set in the City by the Bay, I wondered if Allen would use the city as symbolically as Hitch did in Vertigo. Allen doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean the city isn’t symbolic. Overtly, the city’s hilly terrain symbolizes a woman with a life of ups and downs. But I think a little more subtle than that is how San Francisco serves more as a beautiful bayside backdrop to a woman drowning in her unravelled life.
That drowning woman is Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), who arrives in San Francisco to live with her adopted sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine is a former New York socialite who is recently bankrupt and widowed; her husband, Hal (played in flashback by Alec Baldwin), was a shady investor who went to jail for his unethical business dealings and killed himself while there. Where once she threw lavish parties and spent money without thought, Jasmine now must find a way to make it on her own, while those in her life must find a way to deal with her in the process.
Allen’s storytelling method for Blue Jasmine is wonderfully engaging. Rather than offer a tale that is told in a traditional linear sense, Allen opts to interweave the backstory throughout the main story as a series of chronological flashbacks that act as Jasmine’s memories. It gives us the opportunity to watch her past life and her present life unfold in parallel. This is effective because we learn early in the present life that Jasmine is mentally unstable, and we are able to watch what in the past life helped lead to this instability as we watch her attempt to make some semblance of her present life. It’s like watching two short films at once.
As for the story, the recurring themes (in both lives) are of actions and their consequences, and of inactions and their consequences. Throughout the film, almost every character does or doesn’t do something that has a significant downstream impact to either themselves and/or to others. Of course, one major action is what ultimately links the end of the past life to the beginning of the present life, but that action is not revealed until the end of the film.
The characters offer a blend of similarities and differences between the two lives. Jasmine’s past-life husband is played by Baldwin as if straight out of central casting, with good looks and polished demeanor and that smug-yet-loveable Baldwin air about him. He’s his Jack Donaghy character from 30 Rock but all grown up. In Jasmine’s present life, her romantic interest – Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) – while perhaps not as rich as Hal was, is certainly rich enough, and has aspirations for politics. But where Hal’s money was made in the world of power ties and wingtips, Dwight’s money is family money, and he carries himself as if he’s been entitled all his life.
The unpolished Ginger is another bridge between both lives. In the past-life, she was married to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), a construction worker. In the present life, she’s expecting to marry Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a mechanic. Both are simple, blue collar men. Cannavale is good as the one whose romantic plans are interrupted by Jasmine’s arrival, but it’s Clay who stands out. He doesn’t have a large part, but it’s critical to the plot and he plays it as if it’s that once-in-a-career role that he is perfect for AND is written and directed by a living legend. That old Dice attitude is present, too, but it is subduedly measured. I tend to think that having fallen from celebrity grace so long ago has more to do with it than acting skills. He’s the same old Dice minus that gigantic chip on his shoulder, and it works perfectly.
There’s a Jasmine connection here too, as in both lives she is critically influential on her sister’s relationships.
Rounding out the ensemble are Louis C.K. as an unexpected love interest for Ginger, Michael Stuhlbarg as a dentist in Jasmine’s life, and Alden Ehrenreich as Hal’s son, Danny.
And of course there is Blanchett, whose performance is remarkable.
In Jasmine’s past life, Blanchett masterfully plays various levels of ignorance to the goings-on around her. I don’t want to call it obliviousness, because that suggests she sees nothing; it’s ignorance in the truest sense – she ignores things. Blanchett is great here at portraying a woman who enjoys the trappings of wealth but doesn’t want to know where it REALLY comes from; a wife who refuses to see her husband’s philandering, even though it’s the worst-kept secret in town; and a sister who simply doesn’t understand (and doesn’t care to learn) what being blue collar is like on any level. She isn’t flighty, nor is she in denial; she simply chooses to be less wise. And when that past life comes to its conclusion, it is devastating, and Blanchett moves you with her performance.
But it’s in the present life where Blanchett dazzles. On the surface, she is a woman who has had it all and doesn’t know how to act … behave … function when she winds up with nothing. She still carries herself, and treats people, like she is the millionaire’s wife she used to be. She isn’t condescending so much as she is clueless. But now that behavior – those actions – have significant immediate consequences (as opposed to the significant long-term consequences of her past life).
Beneath the surface, though, is a constant energy about her that is borne of her nervous breakdown, and even though that calls for her to rarely be still, Blanchett never overplays it. Her constant reaching for Xanax and vodka (often at the same time) is never played as white-collar junkie; instead, it’s played as a nervous tick when in a stressful situation, not any different than someone fidgeting or cracking their knuckles. In this role, Blanchett has turned addiction into muscle memory. Likewise the scenes where she is speaking to someone who isn’t there – another symptom of her fractured mental health. There is never a moment when she “pops” from the real-world to some imaginary one; her transition between the people around her and the people in her mind is seamless. More than once I found myself a little surprised when her conversation was with no one. Even though Blue Jasmine must draw to a conclusion, Blanchett’s is a masterful performance that you never want to see end.