One of the more bracing pleasures of Woody Allen’s latest rebound period is the element of bitterness that’s crept into his work. Even a crowd-pleaser like Midnight In Paris subscribes to a fundamentally world-weary outlook. Coming from a filmmaker who’s made 40-odd features since 1969, that film’s notion that it’s essential to live in the moment and forget the past is, from a certain angle, pretty bleak. Unlikely as it may seem, though, Blue Jasmine finds Allen charting bona fide new territory, with Cate Blanchett starring as a kind of Gena Rowlands version of Ruth Madoff—or, as early reviewers have suggested, a modern-day Blanche DuBois. As the wife of a foiled Ponzi mastermind who’s left her broke and alone, Blanchett commands the screen in an emotionally complex role that earns her only the barest wisp of sympathy. There’s something admirably perverse about a movie that casts Andrew Dice Clay as the most upstanding character on screen.
Blue Jasmine signals a departure right from its aspect ratio; believe it or not, this is only Allen’s third film (following Manhattan and Anything Else) to be shot in ’scope. The movie initially scans as a comedy, with Blanchett’s socialite hopping off a New York-to-San Francisco flight yammering to a fellow passenger who isn’t remotely interested in her troubles. It soon becomes clear that this is Serious Woody, down to its surprisingly unromanticized, untouristic view of the Bay Area. Blanchett has gone there to move in with her crasser, poorer sister (a terrific Sally Hawkins); the two never got along, but Blanchett now needs her for support. In flashbacks to New York and the Hamptons, the film details Blanchett’s willful blindness to the crimes of her Madoff-like husband (Alec Baldwin). Among the losers in his scam were Hawkins and her former husband (a well-used Dice Clay), roped in through Blanchett’s best intentions. Not that she’s going to apologize: She disapproves of Hawkins’ rough-hewn fiancé (Bobby Cannavale) and pushes her toward a smoother sound engineer (Louis C.K.).
With the wealthy characters almost universally conniving and the less well-off initially patient and warm, the class portrait at first seems as crude as Match Point’s, yet Blue Jasmine refuses to make anyone a cardboard saint. Blanchett takes a job as a receptionist for a less-than-upstanding dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and perpetrates a charade of her own after falling for a diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard). The subplots pile up, never forming a coherent whole, but the dramatic unruliness makes Blue Jasmine nervy and vital in a way fans might have suspected Allen no longer had in him. When’s the last time he even alluded to current events? Minor echoes of Husbands And Wives and Another Woman aside, Blue Jasmine is genuinely unlike any other film Allen has made. How much of the Woodman’s recent output passes that test?