'Blue Jasmine,' Woody Allen's sister saga, sends up the 1 percenters

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Blue Jasmine,' Allen's newest film, makes simple-minded class distinctions and his heroine doesn't provoke much sympathy.

Sony Pictures
Left to right: Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), Eddie (Max Casella), Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) cavort in 'Blue Jasmine.'

Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” opens with a sequence that seems funny but soon plays out in ways that are anything but. A well-appointed woman, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine, flying coast to coast first-class, is regaling her uncomfortable seatmate with nonstop blather about sex and the good life.

It soon becomes clear that Jasmine is bereft and perhaps a bit deranged. We learn that her moneyed life in New York collapsed when her Bernie Madoff-like swindler husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was arrested, later killing himself in prison. Now she is decamping to the San Francisco home of her chipper, down-to-earth sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whose working-class ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), had been cheated by Hal out of $200,000 in lottery winnings.

Ginger’s new muscle-shirted boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), like Augie, resents Jasmine’s high-toned, highhanded ways, which she clings to like a life raft despite finding herself in the demeaning position of having to work as a dentist’s assistant to make money.

Plied most of the time with martinis and antidepressants, Jasmine makes life miserable for her sister, who nevertheless feels a strong familial bond. (They were adopted from different sets of parents.) Ginger acts as helpmate to this scourge even when her boyfriends are derided as losers. Meanwhile, Jasmine refuses to fully admit Hal’s corruptions and infidelities, which we see amply played out in the film’s numerous flashbacks to her swank past life.

Why should we care about Jasmine? For me, the best reason was Blanchett’s all-out performance, which is often frighteningly vivid. (The film is uniformly well acted.) She gives Jasmine’s despair an almost tensile strength. Blanchett has played Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on stage, and in “Blue Jasmine,” which has many allusions to that play, she is playing a variant on Blanche.

But there is a difference. Blanche was a poetic conceit. Her psychosexual torments were free-floating. Jasmine is intended to be a kind of avatar for the recession-era 1 percenters. Her miseries, we are made to feel, are the fallout from the corruptions she still will not admit to. She so wanted the good life that she looked the other way, or, more exact, refused to look at all, at the larcenies that made that life possible. She’s a walking advertisement for the dangers of denial.

The flaw in Allen’s approach is that it’s difficult to work up much sympathy – and I mean this in the widest sense – for someone whose world was overturned when her Saks charge cards ran out. We need to see what these riches might have meant to Jasmine beyond their obvious allures. We need to see in her behavior more traces of who she was before she hit it big. Her derangement in the film is basically keyed to her downfall. But she gives every indication – and Ginger says nothing to contradict this – that she was always a freeze-dried social-climbing snoot.

Allen has never been the most acute observer of the class system in America, perhaps because almost all of his movies have centered on the neurotic contortions of white upper-middle-class New Yorkers. There is much to mine in this realm, and I’m not suggesting that Allen should have been making movies about the lower depths just to up his socially conscious cred. But the class distinctions in “Blue Jasmine” are fairly simple-minded and sentimental.

The rich, with the exception of a diplomat (Peter Saarsgard) Jasmine almost hoodwinks into marrying her, are uniformly portrayed as venal. The lower classes, embodied by Chili and Augie and Ginger, whose Mission District apartment looks a lot pricier than it is intended to be, are salt-of-the-earth types. They also carry the film’s sole erotic charge. If Allen had followed the example of “Streetcar,” he would have had Jasmine sleep with Chili, which might have kicked up the film’s dramatic possibilities.

But Allen is content to have Jasmine, babbling to herself, waft into a psychoneurotic, Antonioni-esque haze that seems preordained by her class and her predicament. Her cry for help, if you wipe away all the artifice, resembles nothing so much as a plea for her charge cards to be reinstated. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, language, and sexual content.)

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