Many critics have rightly called Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre and Valley View, his best movie in years. Like all his movies, this one features an ensemble cast. You'd be hard pressed to find another director able to make a movie with so many high-caliber stars. But everyone wants to work with Allen, even if his last few films haven't been stellar.
Rather than give everyone equal face time, Allen focuses primarily on Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy, self-involved socialite who's been in a tailspin ever since her wealthy, philandering husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) went to jail on charges of fraud and left her penniless.
By honing in on one particular character, Allen brings a sharper focus to this film. And it helps that Blanchett gives such a great performance as the incessantly nervous and self-medicated Jasmine. In interviews, Blanchett has also said she thought about the Madoff scandal when she was figuring out how she'd portray Jasmine. Nice move. Oh, and she boozed it up too, drinking lots of wine in preparation for playing a lush. Another nice move. She's perfect in the part.
As the film commences, Jasmine has decided to move in with her grocery-bagging sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) because she can no longer afford the rent of her New York apartment. Ginger lives in a modest home in San Francisco. Jasmine's boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) tries to introduce Jasmine to a friend of his, but Jasmine heartily dislikes both Chili and his friend. She doesn't hold Ginger's dim-witted ex-husband Augie (a surprisingly appropriate Andrew Dice Clay) in high regard either.
It's only after Jasmine meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy politician with social-climbing aspirations of running for Congress, that she feels like she's met the right man. Dwight falls for her so quickly, even proposing marriage. But a run-in with ex-in-law Augie leaves him with second thoughts and he suspects Jasmine has lied to him about her past. Meanwhile, Ginger strikes up a relationship with slightly more successful audio equipment salesman Al (Louis C.K.), further threatening any plans Chili had to move in. It seems like Jasmine's presence in Ginger's life only makes a complicated mess even more of a mess.
Neurotic and nervous, Jasmine is quite a character and Allen exploits the fact that she inspires both sympathy and revulsion. He adroitly mixes comedy and tragedy by centering the film on such an anti-hero. While the flashbacks to Jasmine and Hal's life of luxury are disorienting, that's only appropriate. Jasmine experiences the flashbacks as sudden interruptions that send her reeling. They regularly throw Jasmine for a loop as she recalls the times when her life was so much better.
While the Madoff scandal may have inspired Jasmine, the collapse that takes place in her life isn't solely financial. And that's a good thing. She experiences the kind of quick decline that can happen to anyone, and that's this film's biggest strength. She experiences the kind of sudden financial turnaround that we all fear.