A beautiful, aging blonde has lost all her wealth and moved in with her impoverished brunette sister, whose sexy boyfriend has fits of rage. He dislikes this interloper but tries to get her romantically interested in his easygoing, lower-class pal. She’s obsessed with her former status and looks down on everyone in her humble new life, while alcohol and loneliness erode her sanity.
Writer-director Woody Allen could have called his San Francisco-set drama “A Cable Car Named Desire.” But his spin through Tennessee Williams territory, where he has never gone before, seems fresh in the hands of an expert cast.
The title character in “Blue Jasmine” is blue indeed, and with reason. We meet Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) as she moves into her frumpy sister’s dumpy apartment in San Francisco. Jasmine can’t understand why Ginger (Sally Hawkins) seems so happy. She bags groceries for a living, has two noisy kids and seems to be en route to her second marriage with a potentially violent New York transplant, Chili (Bobby Cannavale).
Yet Jasmine has nothing but debts and bitter memories. Her husband (Alec Baldwin), an investor who signed both their names to shady deals, went to prison. Her stepson (Alden Ehrenreich) wants nothing to do with either of them. Her friends have discreetly forgotten her, and the government has taken all her money as reparation. Uneducated and unemployed, she throws herself on the sister she has always treated with neglect or contempt.
Allen set himself a hard task: making us care about a woman who lies constantly and alienates everyone. Yet we do care, because she’s a victim who had no hand in her fall and a woman who has been coddled since childhood. A bird that’s never been asked to fly will smash to the ground when its nest falls apart, and you have to pity it.
Nor does Blanchett flinch from portraying a clinging, weepy, selfish, self-deluded woman whose grief begins to unhinge her. (She played Blanche DuBois in a New York “Streetcar” in 2009.)
You can observe such people in any big city, talking vindictively to unseen others or pitifully to themselves. It’s novel to see one in designer clothes, but Allen reminds us we can all be sisters or brothers in lunacy under the right conditions.
As always, the director uses an eclectic cast. Andrew “Dice” Clay and Cannavale play Ginger’s past and maybe future mistakes; Louis C.K. dances briefly through the movie as the man who may elevate Ginger above low-rent status.
Unlike Williams in “Streetcar,” Allen gives rounded pictures of both sisters’ lives, and Ginger is hardly a saint. We like her mostly because Hawkins plays lovable, self-destructive losers so well. Alec Baldwin and Peter Sarsgaard quickly fill in the sketchy characters of self-absorbed men in Jasmine’s life: Baldwin is the millionaire criminal, Sarsgaard a diplomat who wants her by his side if he turns to politics.
The fine acting helps us past rickety moments in plot construction. We can hardly believe a would-be politician didn’t search online for Jasmine’s history and dump her within a day. A jaw-dropping coincidence from which we barely have time to recover sets up the necessary climax.
Yet Allen’s always safe when he turns the camera on Blanchett, who hasn’t had a leading film role since “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008.
Jasmine’s breakdowns would be scenery-chewing extravagance in less expert hands, but never seem repetitive in hers. The film’s ambiguous conclusion further identifies Jasmine with Blanche Dubois and marks Blanchett as perhaps the greatest Tennessee Williams actress of her generation.