Write and direct about 45 movies in the span of five decades, and there's a pretty good chance that certain themes will keep repeating themselves. Woody Allen's huge body of work is impressive both because of the number of gems he's produced—by dint of his work ethic, he has more great films to his name than just about any living filmmaker—and because his movie-a-year rate gives audiences a chance to check back in to see how his preoccupations have evolved. Blue Jasmine is one of his strongest of the last 10 years, but it's also of a piece with many of his earlier films. Like many of his movies, it's about luck and the ways in which we try to escape the harshness of reality through our self-made fantasies. And also like a lot of his films, it's a character piece anchored by a terrific lead performance.
Cate Blanchett, working with Allen for the first time, plays Jasmine, who when we meet her immediately strikes us as a handful. She's blathering on and on about her problems to the woman sitting next to her on a flight from New York to San Francisco, where Jasmine will meet up with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine's life was once storybook: She lived in Manhattan with her handsome, rich businessman husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), but he went to jail for some unspecified shady dealings, leaving her bankrupt. Forced to move in with Ginger, who's never had much luck with men or money, Jasmine does her best to behave kindly around her sister, but it's pretty clear that she views Ginger's modest life and lack of cultural sophistication with disdain. Jasmine will pick herself up soon enough, and then she's outta there.
Disciples will see a combination of several previous Allen creations in Jasmine. She's at a painful crossroads like Another Woman's Gena Rowlands, as full of unblinking self-confidence as Sweet and Lowdown's Sean Penn, and falling apart as spectacularly as Husbands and Wives' Judy Davis. But Blanchett, who for better or worse often over-commits to her characters' most striking elements, gives Jasmine a melodramatic grandness that falls right between hilarious and tragic. Convinced that her current poverty is merely a temporary condition, Jasmine carries herself with an aloof, regal air, which to her mind doesn't contradict her strange predilection for having imaginary conversations with people from her past while out in public. (She also has a thing about lying, which she uses to help snare a dashing diplomat played by Peter Sarsgaard.) With her beauty, charm and grace, Jasmine would make a hell of a catch—except for the fact that she seems completely broken.
Blue Jasmine is a drama, but it's one of Allen's funniest, mostly because of Blanchett. You don't laugh so much at Jasmine as you do at Blanchett's ballsiness. The actress flirts with caricature, but it's actually appropriate since Jasmine herself is putting on something of a performance, her persona a collection of upper-crust mannerisms she's assembled over time. In flashbacks, we see her marriage to Hal, and it's filled with fancy parties, jet-setting fun and gorgeous apartments. But there's a fly in the ointment: Repeatedly, we see Jasmine's uncertainty about being able to fully trust her husband, who seems a little too friendly with other women. Even when everything in her world seemed happy, there was an edge of doubt that left her pretending that she was fine, when maybe she should have known better about his infidelity and unscrupulous business practices. (Much has been made of the fact that Blanchett recently played another operatic character, Blanche DuBois, in a new Streetcar Named Desire, but apparently it wasn't a driving influence on Blue Jasmine.)
The movie's interests go beyond watching a once-rich woman slowly have a nervous breakdown, though; Allen also wants to explore these two sisters as examples of how luck can shape a life.
As we soon learn, Jasmine and Ginger as kids were adopted by the same married couple, making their bond perhaps shakier than that most siblings enjoy. (They've been linked together by chance, not blood.) As in Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Cassandra's Dream, Blue Jasmine is about how the members of the same family can turn out quite differently. By making Ginger and Jasmine not related by blood, though, Allen is also returning to the terrain of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where two female friends discover that they actually have little in common, and that their destinies determined by their divergent world views.
Ginger live an unpretentious life while Jasmine aspires to something greater, but the sisters are joined together for another reason beyond family: The flashbacks reveal how Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) were screwed over by Hal, his financial impropriety destroying their tiny nest egg. The randomness of the universe—the power of good or bad fortune on individuals—has been an obsession of Allen's in movies like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Celebrity, and it pops up again in Blue Jasmine, where both lives could have turned out better if one or two things had played out differently. As throughout his career, Allen's new movie is about how people keep telling themselves that things will be OK, even when they probably won't.
Not all of Allen's tics and idiosyncracies are welcome. Though he mostly keeps from being condescending to Ginger's way of life, Allen does saddle her with a predictably doofy boyfriend who is, of course, named Chili. (Bobby Cannavale plays him at maximum palooka, as if he's auditioning for the Bullets Over Broadway musical.) And the stabs at broad comic relief are pretty wobbly: They mostly occur in a painfully awkward digression involving the world's meekest, nerdiest dentist (played too broadly by Michael Stuhlbarg) trying to court the refined Jasmine. Some of the later plot points, too, won't be a surprise to Allen's fans. (At this point, watching his earlier films can practically constitute a spoiler alert for his newer ones.)
Still, Blue Jasmine features one of Allen's best recent ensembles. Beyond the great performance by Blanchett, you've also got strong turns from Baldwin, Hawkins, Sarsgaard and, in a small role, Louis C.K., who plays a sweet guy smitten with Ginger. Strangely, the real surprise, is Clay, who makes Ginger's ex-husband an angry, beaten-down but also incredibly sympathetic figure. Even more than Jasmine, Augie speaks to all the worthwhile people out there in the world who never caught that one break that could have turned their life around. By the end of Blue Jasmine, though, his fate seems a lot less dire than that of poor, deluded Jasmine.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.