Give Woody Allen this much: His new film, Blue Jasmine, is his most ambitious in years, perhaps since 2005's Match Point. Following a series of undercooked, oddly touristic comedies, Allen has turned his eye back to drama with the story of a life in the midst of disintegration.
Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a once-wealthy New York socialite who's had the pillars supporting her fragile identity kicked out from beneath her. Her suave, successful-businessman husband (Alec Baldwin) was revealed as a cheat (in more ways than one) and sent to prison, where he killed himself. Her homes and money gone, she has nowhere left to go but the worn San Francisco apartment of her working-class adoptive sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). As her fortunes have collapsed, Jasmine's very sense of reality has begun to fray: Kept afloat by booze and pills, she slips into occasional fugue states, replaying old memories and conversations aloud.
Despite her radically diminished circumstances, Jasmine remains an inveterate snob, self-absorbed and deluded. (When the idea of her taking a job as a dental receptionist is broached, she snaps, "Jesus, it's too menial.") Class friction between the sisters gradually escalates, in particular over Jasmine's repeated assertion that the men in Ginger's life--an ex-husband played by Andrew Dice Clay, a quasi-fiancé played by Bobby Cannavale--are "losers."
In the central role, Blanchett offers an intense and unsettling performance. Aloof, condescending, and utterly devoid of self-knowledge, Jasmine is an impossible figure to like, yet one we nonetheless hope will find redemption. The echoes of Blanche DuBois--whom Blanchett played in Liv Ullmann's traveling 2009 production of A Streetcar Named Desire--are difficult to miss: fragile, doomed, unraveling before our eyes.
Yet Blanchett, and Blue Jasmine itself, are let down by Allen's script and direction. Though the film sets itself loftier goals than most of his recent works, it shares with them an unfinished quality, as if it were the first draft of a better work that wasn't given the time and attention to come together.
It's commonplace to note the assembly-line-like dutifulness with which Allen, now 77, rolls out a movie each year. (The last calendar year in which the director did not release a film was 1981, between Stardust Memories and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.) Allen is a famously hands-off director--averse to rehearsal and multiple takes, inclined to grant his cast "total freedom"--and while this method succeeds on occasion, too many scenes in Blue Jasmine betray a directorial negligence. As gifted an actress as Blanchett is, there are times when her performance could use external guidance, an occasional reigning in of excess. This is still more true of less-proficient performers such as Clay--an unexpectedly likable presence, but one whose craft could have used nurturing.
The script, too, is underdeveloped. There are hints of an interesting meditation on class in America, but they're held back by cartoonish caricature: working-class goombahs on one side (Hawkins's loud, fat, rude kids fulfill a particularly unpleasant stereotype), and the wafting, billowy rich on the other. In theory, these latter have careers--in government or high finance--but in practice they seem to do little more than consume conspicuously.
Lurking behind this lack of telling detail seems to be an incuriosity about how the world actually works: Would a State Department employee theoretically stationed in Vienna (a character played listlessly by the usually excellent Peter Sarsgaard) really be able to spend all his time at his bayside mansion in Marin County--and would he genuinely imagine that serving as a European diplomat would be the ideal building block for a congressional run? Would a white-collar criminal such as Jasmine's husband really be handcuffed, without warning, by the FBI on a Manhattan sidewalk? (And do the blue-collar characters really have to be a mechanic--sorry, "grease monkey"--a checkout girl, and a guy who works construction?) There's a sketchy, incomplete air to far too many of the characters and developments in Blue Jasmine.
Here, too, as in other recent films, Allen relies heavily on expository dialogue and voiceover to impel the plot forward. After we watch Jasmine babble about her life to a stranger, for example, the latter helpfully corroborates our just-completed experience: "She couldn't stop babbling about her life."
All that said, other critics and moviegoers have enjoyed Blue Jasmine--and, generally speaking, Allen's recent oeuvre--considerably more than I have, and for some my complaints may come across as nitpicking. Like so many fans of the director's earlier work, I would be delighted if he were to produce another great--or even very good--film. That desire, of course, brings with it two potential pitfalls: either that viewers treat his current work too generously based on past fondness (a tendency, unsurprisingly, that I consider common); or that they hold it to unreasonably high standards. Some readers, no doubt, will suspect that I have fallen into the latter trap. If you find yourself among them, by all means see the film and draw your own conclusions.