Cate Blanchett is generally regarded as one of the great actresses of our time, and yet her actual track record is curiously spotty. She earned her stardom with a world-beating performance in 1998’s Elizabeth, gleefully threw rocks at her own celebrity image in Coffee and Cigarettes, and won an Oscar for her note-perfect impersonation of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. At the same time, however, she picked a string of iffy vehicles to star in: Veronica Guerin, The Missing, The Good German. She has consistently sought out reputable directors to work with, but too often she hasn’t delivered the goods. What did she really add to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Robin Hood or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Shouldn’t a true great transcend or at least elevate her material a little more frequently than this? The last really good performance she gave on film was all the way back in 2007, when she played Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.
Say this for her work in Blue Jasmine: You can’t look away from it. Popping pills and drinking nonstop, glowering with contempt for the lower orders, and parading a ferocious series of tics, Blanchett devours everything in Woody Allen’s movie, especially his substandard script. She may be altogether too much, but her performance here is vastly preferable to whatever else she has been doing lately. This tragedy about a woman who thinks herself destined for a better life enjoyed a successful run in theaters this past summer. It’s being re-released this week, so you can get another look at it.
As the film begins, Jasmine French (Blanchett) has landed in San Francisco after her well-heeled life implodes in New York. The story switches back and forth in time. In the recent past, Jasmine enjoys the high life provided her by her Wall Street hedge-fund manager husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), willfully ignoring the signs that he’s running a Bernard Madoff-style pyramid scheme. In the present day, she settles in uneasily with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and Ginger’s none-too-pleased boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) and immediately decides she must get out by any means possible.
This story is just a weak rewriting of A Streetcar Named Desire, and it’s particularly embarrassing when Allen turns his attentions to the working-class milieu that Ginger inhabits. The filmmaker has been an international celebrity since the 1970s, so maybe that explains why he apparently has lost his ear for the way people talk who haven’t had a great deal of formal education. The working-class characters here (including Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s ex-husband and Louis C.K. as a guy Ginger has an affair with) are at least four decades out of date, and the actors’ best efforts can’t rescue them. Speaking of Louis C.K., why cast such a funny guy and then give him such an unrewarding part? The subplot with Jasmine taking an office job with a pervy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) seems to belong in a whole other movie, too.
No, it’s Jasmine who captures all your attention, motivated as she is by her horror of her own working-class roots (her actual name is Jeanette) and her desire to escape them. She’s no good at any profession, so her only hope of living the sort of life she wants is to snag herself a rich man. That’s why she doesn’t inquire more closely when her friends in New York start warning her of Hal’s infidelities or when she becomes aware of the increasing panic among his cadre of lawyers and managers.
Jasmine is one of those people who can’t cope when she loses her wealth — she stares uncomprehendingly when Ginger asks her why she flew first-class to California when she’s broke. Her drive to keep up appearances leads her to sabotage a possible relationship with a handsome San Francisco politician (Peter Sarsgaard) by lying to him about her past. The strain of this existence causes her to rely on prescription drugs and booze to get through the day, and she shows signs of worrying instability from the beginning. “There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming,” she says.
Blanchett plays all this with a hard-nosed air of entitlement that gives Blue Jasmine a bracing quality, and the final shot of her raving to herself on a park bench makes a lot of sense given what we’ve seen. I don’t think this is one of the year’s best performances, even if it seems nailed on for an Oscar nomination, but it is an encouraging sign that this tremendous talent still has the possibility for greatness in her.
Starring Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13.