When you see a movie, television show or play, read a book, play a video game or any other form of entertainment, one thing is certain most of the time: you want to root for your protagonist. For a fish out of water viewer who has no idea what they’re watching, you need a character whose as clueless and out of the loop as they are so they, the viewer, has a connection to someone they’re watching and observing.
Maybe the protagonist is down on their luck, has the weight of the world on their shoulders, just got fired, has an abusive boss, the reasons can rattle on like a shopping list. But what if nothing connected the audience to the protagonist? Nothing at all?
What if you tried to sympathize, but by film’s end you left just wondering what would become of this character? Can a downfall from grace humanize a character, or do we encourage their struggle? The line between being sympathetic and pitiable is hard to balance.
Here we have Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.
In what could be a somewhat cruel look at humanity, Allen weaves a tale about a New York socialite Jasmine (Jeanette) Francis, played by Cate Blanchett, who finds herself broke and without a place to go. The film begins with her on a plane, en route to San Francisco. The woman next is subject to hear about Jasmine’s husband, as well as the rest of her life story, all the way until luggage pick-up, yet even after the woman leaves and meets up with her husband, she insists that Jasmine spent the flight talking to herself.
Right from the start, we see that Jasmine, despite her situation, still sees herself as a woman of luxury. She wears bright sunglasses, still carries around a monogrammed Louis Vuitton and dresses as if she’s off to a dinner party. Though she talks of being broke, you’d think she still had a couple hundred thousand stashed away in case of an emergency. When Jasmine arrives in San Francisco, she heads to move into the apartment of her adopted sister, Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins. Jasmine finds the apartment homely- ergo, not the posh lifestyle of New York City, but it’ll do- and settles in. Ginger finds it surprising that Jasmine, having little to no money, managed to fly to San Francisco on first class. Must have known someone in the airline profession. You know how connections work.
As Jasmine settles in, she continues to reflect on her past life and this is where the film splits into two parts: the present day and Jasmine’s time with her husband, Hal, played by Alec Baldwin, before things fell apart. Hal was a wealthy businessman and, as he puts it, a Philistine businessman who made many successful business arrangements.
At one point, Ginger and her husband Augie, played by Andrew Dice Clay, visited
Jasmine and Hal. Though Jasmine accepts them in, behind their back, she talks of them as if they were low class commoners who didn’t entertain themselves with horseback rides and foot massages. She even feels guilty for Ginger. After all, not everyone can flaunt around wealth. However, Ginger and Augie managed to hit it big and win $200,000. Augie intends to start his own construction company, become his own man, but Hal insists that he help the two of them invest their cash in a hotel business.
While touring New York, Ginger spots Hal walking off and kissing another
woman. When Ginger spots the woman with Hal at a dinner party that night, she comes to the conclusion that Hal is having an affair. Ginger quarrels with the idea of telling Jasmine, while Augie insists that, as a friend, he would explain what’s happening. I already like Augie and Ginger- they’re more down to earth and approachable. Furthermore, they aren’t out for fame and fortune. Rather, they will make the best
of their situation and if an opportunity comes their way, like winning $200,000, they’ll pursue their dreams. Not out of obligation, but because the opportunity has landed in their hands.
Back to the present, Ginger wants to get Jasmine dating again. They go out on a double dinner date with Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili, played by Gyp Rosetti himself, Bobby Cannavale, and another friend. Chili and his friend pry into Jasmine’s life, asking what she wants to do with her future. In response, Jasmine states she would like to become an interior designer, but through an online course to save herself the money. However, as she is not computer literate- in 2013, no less- she decides to take up a computer course.
The question aside of how a New York socialite in 2013 does not know have any computer skills, to further expound on Jasmine’s past life, Chili asks why Ginger openly accepts Jasmine, knowing that, as we learn, Hal swindled Augie and Ginger out of their money. Jasmine sees both Chili and Augie, and any man that Ginger dates, really, as bad influences. Like the strict mother that wants to meet her daughter’s prom date, Jasmine continues to tell Ginger that she can do better. Apparently so could Jasmine, as, through another flashback, we see Hal offering his female fitness instructor on a date to a baseball game. Jasmine is none the wiser and thinks nothing of it. As we head back to the present, it becomes clearer that Jasmine is losing control of herself, as seen by her endless Xanax pill popping parade. In addition to trying to pick herself up after losing everything, she appears to always be on the verge of lashing out or having a breakdown.
In an attempt to get back on her feet and make some money for the computer class, Jasmine find herself accepting one of those mindless, menial jobs only suited for commoners. Can you imagine the embarrassment she felt in New York when she had to take jobs that involved waiting on her fancy, schmancy friends? How degrading indeed. She accepts a secretary position for a dentist, Dr. Flicker, played by Mr. Arnold Rothstein himself, Michael Stuhlbarg.
So now Boardwalk Empire has had two of its actors make their way into this film.
Jasmine, meanwhile, meets a wealthy man named Dwight, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Dwight is everything Jasmine wants in a man that she did not get from Hal. He works in the State Department and has plans to become a Congressman, and, most importantly: he’s a widow. In contrast to Jasmine’s brief moment of happiness, we learn that she was not always a mindless consumer, but soon found herself diagnosed with symptoms such as anxiety and claustrophobia. These symptoms, among the affairs and other things, led to Jasmine endlessly popping pills just to maintain control.
And let’s leave the plot there.
Blue Jasmine is a stark, gritty look at reality. Money is said to be the root of all evil, but for many, it’s seen as the root of happiness. For Jasmine, wealth and fortune were what she knew best. One of the film’s central themes is accepting the past. Who can accept it, who refuses to leave the past behind them and who buries it?
For example, throughout the film, Chili and Augie in particular remind Ginger that when she was in need, Jasmine was never there for her. Jasmine, obsessed over pilates and hot tubs, continued to look the other way not just with her sister, but husband as well. It’s because Ginger tries to be the good sister by opening her home to Jasmine that shows how she wants to help. But it’s when she calls out Jasmine on her pretentiousness that Ginger becomes fully realized. As much as she wants to see Jasmine pick herself up, Jasmine continues to push her away with her snide remarks and constant reminders of her former wealth. On that note, Ginger’s subplot takes her through a clear character arc. She at first takes Jasmine’s advice about looking for better men and trying to put family first. However, by film’s end, she rejects Jasmine’s words and focuses on being happy for what she wants, not what she thinks Jasmine would want.
Deception is another of the film’s main themes: the masks we wear in order to hide our emotions. Some, like Danny, choose not to wear the mask at all and just let the past behind them. However, some hide their emotions and let them boil over, as we see with Augie and Chili. Jasmine especially, with her ramblings about her past life, about Hal this and Hal that, her lying to Dwight about how Hal died, berating her sister for not having a glamorous life- Jasmine refuses to accept what’s in front of her. And when she does, it’s like she’s staring into a cracked mirror. Allen found a way to create a character who is very unlikable, but not unsympathetic. You want Jasmine to get on the right path. You want her to go back to school and actually pursue that career in interior design, but Jasmine reels herself back in when she pops pills, hankers for another drink and hinges on her past, wealthy life. It’s maddening to watch this self destructing character try and find some semblance in her now crumbling life, but Blanchett plays the part with great excellence and she leaves you wondering what Jasmine will do next.
We know Woody Allen for his comedy, but he shines here with a look at what happens when someone tries to pick up the fragments of their shattered life. Everyone is well cast. Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale in particular turn in strong performances as the tasteless, but well-meaning boyfriends. These men could have been written off as jerks trying to keep Jasmine down, but they have dimension. They’ve seen Jasmine’s personality up close, Augie in particular with his dreams being crushed by Hal while Jasmine did nothing. Again, they may be on edge, but they mean well.
There’s a cute scene where Chili and Ginger, who previously argued over turning off a boxing match so Jasmine could study, now playfully argue over who gets the last slice of pizza. It’s a very real couple and you root for them. Louis C.K. turns in a good performance with what he’s given, but he’s not on screen long enough for there to be much to say about him. His performance as Al does feel like a breath of fresh air since he’s more fun loving than Augie and Chili. He just happens to be unfaithful, as well.
I’m unfamiliar with Michael Stuhlbarg’s work outside of Boardwalk Empire, so to see him go from being the cold and calculating Arnold Rothstein to a creepy dentist was jarring, but funny all the same. Alec Baldwin turns in a great performance as the businessman executive who swindles and sidelines anyone he comes in contact with, not the least of which includes his many flings. He’s practically playing Jack Donaghy, his character from 30 Rock, again. Yet, this being Alec Baldwin, he finds that line between repulsion and attraction. He wins you over with his charm while stealthily grabbing your wallet out of your back pocket.
Also, Sally Hawkins as Ginger is a nice contrast of what Jasmine could have if she got her act together. Ginger, while not exactly living on Park Avenue, has what Jasmine lacks throughout this entire film: control. All right, she can’t keep her sons quiet all of the time, but she has a steady job, a man who cares for her enough that he’ll come to her job and profess his love for her, and she’s more interested in focusing on the present instead of obsessing over the past. She also knows how to keep Jasmine in check. Ginger is warm and approachable, while Jasmine is rigid and reactionary. It’s amazing that these two managed to stay under one roof for so long.
As great as the supporting cast is, Cate Blanchett turns in an excellent performance as a woman wandering through life, in search of some clarity. Through her drinking and Xanax binges, Jasmine is an absolute wreck. From scene to scene, it’s uncertain whether she’ll have a breakdown or just ridicule someone for not having wealth, fame and power. We roll our eyes when she talks of middle class jobs as if stepping into Hell itself. I wanted to hate this character as much as I wanted to see her climb out of this hole she’s digging for herself. From the flashbacks, we see that Jasmine is a woman sitting on a lot of frustration and rage.
Wealth has blinded her to the stark reality of life and when she finds herself without that which gave her happiness, she finds solace in talking to random strangers on planes and talking about Hal in the middle of an intersection. It’s sad to watch her make up stories about her past life and how she can’t move on. Her insecurity and delusion paint her as a walking train wreck, but again, not unsympathetic, given everything she’s lived through. We want Jasmine to move on, but she stays stuck. Blanchett and Allen give Jasmine layers. When Jasmine has breakouts, we see her at her most vulnerable. It’s like looking at a cracked mirror and waiting for it to shatter altogether.
The flashbacks where we see her happier give us a glimpse at the amount of barriers she placed up to hide her insecurities, but also how she hid behind her wealth. She knows everything about fashion and designer bags, but is blind to her husband’s slimy dealings and to her sister’s pleas for help when she needed it. And that Jasmine still tries to walk around with this air of superiority shows she’s fallen to the point of trying to live out a fantasy where her perfect life remained unbroken. We as an audience have to ask: Is Jasmine deserving of this because of her obliviousness to her husband’s infidelity and her pretentiousness? Is she actually a victim we want to change, or should she wallow in her own self pity? We aren’t given a clear answer and I think that was Allen’s intention: let the audience make up its own mind.
This is not an approachable film in the classic sense that we can’t fully relate to our main protagonist, but it’s the optimism that she’ll make something out of her crumbled life that kept me watching. Not just that, but the cinematography is stunning at times. Long panning shots of San Francisco filled with vibrant colors contrast well with the gloomy rain cloud that is Jasmine’s life. Nothing spectacular, but from a visual point of view, the film is nice to look at.
Blue Jasmine dares to ask if, after you’ve been beaten down, do you pick yourself up and move on or try to cling to the past. It’s an interesting commentary on how wealth and power do not equal happiness and, above all, control. Is there any worth in holding onto your past life? Or is what Augie said true: some people just don’t put things behind them. It’s a well made film with some great dialogue and performances. Could Blanchett be in contention for Best Actress? I think so, given her work here as a fractured, yet layered woman with a multitude of problems. There are laughs to be had with Blue Jasmine, but don’t mistake this for a full blown comedy we’ve come to expect from Woody Allen. What you can expect is a well done drama with some uncomfortable, but thoughtful moments as we glimpse into the life of a socialite in a downward spiral.
Caution: do not see if rich, snooty or pretentious.