Note: I can’t really write about this movie the way I want to without including plot spoilers. If you’re really worried about that, you might want to hold off from reading until after you see the movie.
As anyone who knows me or who regularly reads this blog knows, my heart is pretty evenly split between New York and San Francisco. I’ve spent the vast majority of my life living in one city or the other, and I’ve spent the last five years or so bouncing back and forth semi-annually between the two. So, when I heard that Woody Allen, arguably the most “New York” (at least Jewish New York) of filmmakers, had set his latest movie in San Francisco, it was a no-brainer that I was going to see it.
I’m generally a fan of Allen’s work, though he’s made so many movies at this point that I can’t even pretend to have kept up with them. I love Annie Hall and Manhattan as much as everybody, and I’ve enjoyed most of his recent non-New York movies, especially Midnight in Paris, which felt like it was written especially for me. I wouldn’t say that Blue Jasmine quite matches up to those early films, but it’s almost certainly my favorite of his late-period films, including Midnight in Paris.
In Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett plays the title character, who has fallen from the grace of Park Avenue high society in the wake of her husband Hal’s conviction for running a Madoff-style investment scam. (Alec Baldwin plays the husband, in a perfect piece of casting; does anyone look more like a Wall Street asshole than Alec Baldwin?) Jasmine lands at her sister Ginger’s modest apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District, where she clashes with both her sister (Sally Hawkins) and her sister’s blue collar boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale).
If that sounds a bit like the set up of A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s not an accident. The movie echoes the classic Tennessee Williams/Elia Kazan play/film in innumerable ways: Jasmine hears music, specifically the song Blue Moon, every time she recalls her idyllic past life; she meets a suitor who promises to take her away from what she perceives to be her sister’s squalid surroundings, only to relent when the inconvenient truths of her past arise; Cannavale subtly evokes the classic “Stella!” scene in one moment when he confronts Ginger, and he even wears wife beaters in most of his scenes, as Marlon Brando did when he played Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film.
I found the most interesting echo of Streetcar to be the fate of Jasmine’s husband, who hangs himself in prison after he is convicted. In the Williams play, Blanche DuBois’s husband shoots himself after she discovers that he’s gay. In Blue Jasmine, Hal hangs himself in prison after his financial crimes are revealed. I find that to be an interesting commentary on how our society has changed. In 1947, when Williams, who was gay, wrote Streetcar, there could be no greater sin than homosexuality. Today, there’s no greater reason for shame and ostracism than being one of the Wall Street assholes who ruined the global economy.
There’s a bunch of other interesting stuff in the film, including small parts for both Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. (who I pretty much worship as a god at this point), but I’ll skip those to devote my time to Blanchett. She is the center of the film, an obnoxious, delusional, holier-than-thou, stuck-up, alcoholic mess who has already had one nervous breakdown and is working on another. It’s an absolute powerhouse of a performance. The film constantly shuffles back and forth in time, alternating between Jasmine’s glory days, when she appears as a regal beauty, to her present day dissolution. In particular, there’s an astonishing scene in which she’s at a restaurant with her sister’s two sons when she vents to them about her downfall, her face becoming more and more twisted and haggard, to the point she doesn’t even look like the same person. And the final scene, in which she’s left sitting alone on a park bench, broken and talking to herself, is just devastating. These are just a couple of the best examples, because Blanchett is basically perfect in every scene; I’d go so far as to say that I think she’s a better Blanche DuBois than Vivien Leigh, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her iconic performance in the 1951 film. I’ve long been of the opinion that the Oscars are dumb, but if Blanchett doesn’t at least get a Best Actress nomination, I’ll eat my goddamn shoe.
I do have one bone to pick with the film: It’s lovely to look at because it uses the scenery of San Francisco, the world’s most beautiful city, really well, but it doesn’t feel like a San Francisco movie. Frankly, all of the characters feel like New Yorkers. In particular, the blue collar characters played by Cannavale and Dice Clay really feel like the kind of dudes you’d meet in New York or Jersey, not San Francisco. And don’t say that a character works in a music store in Oakland and then use the instantly recognizable Real Guitars, which any musician in the Bay will tell you is the best secondhand guitar shop in San Francisco, as your location. It’s not that hard to get a detail like that right.
But that’s a fairly minor quibble. Otherwise, I thought the film was great, and I highly recommend it.