Film Review: Blue Jasmine

Quite watchable but flawed, this mash-up of occasional Woody Allen-esque humor with weightier drama ripped from headlines and psychiatric cases reaches high for its Madoff-inspired concept but doesn’t quite hold altitude.

After the fluff of his two most recent films (To Rome With Love and Midnight in Paris), serial filmmaker Woody Allen gets down and darker stateside with Blue Jasmine. Allen, often imaginative with his concepts, also takes a rare detour onto the Big Idea/What If exit, as in what if a mentally damaged, snobby and forever-lying Park Avenue woman (more than shades of Ruth Madoff here) is forced to seek post-scandal refuge with her working-class Frisco sister who bags groceries and loser boyfriends?

Once again, Allen corrals an impeccable cast and often delicious scenery to ease this uneven journey for filmgoers. Loyal Allen fans, also lured by the plot’s Madoff angle, will be onboard.

The spine of this poor little former nouveau riche girl tale is the downward spiral of vodka-swilling, pill-popping Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, chewing up nearly every frame). She’s a chatty, neurotic former New York society woman who moves in with sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is living her own challenged life in a cramped San Francisco walk-up where she sometimes cares for the two dull boys she had with ex-husband and former handyman/furniture mover Augie (Andrew Dice Clay).

By way of incidental remarks and recourse to copious flashbacks, Allen fills in the many details that have led to Jasmine’s sorry state. Decades ago, she was a Boston University anthropology major dropout who met future husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) in Martha’s Vineyard. He was an ultra-rich wheeler-dealer Bernie Madoff-type with whom Jasmine spent many years living the high life in gorgeous Manhattan apartments and Hamptons houses. Hers was a constant routine of high-end shopping, fancy lunches and dinners, charity benefits, and serving on committees—the whole package the wealthy (and the usual Allen characters) enjoy.

And Hal, too, of course. When not doing illicit deals and scamming people, he buys horses, plays polo, collects classic cars, takes expensive trips and dallies with endless mistresses. On a nice family note, he and Jasmine have a son, Danny (Alden Ehrenreich), who matriculates at Harvard.

But it’s when Jasmine finally learns that Hal has been cheating (she’s the poster girl for denial and blind spending), she takes to the phone and blows the whistle on bad Hal to the FBI. Things go from bad to worse until Jasmine ends up totally broke and makes the trip to resettle in her sister’s apartment.

The sisters couldn’t be more different, but Allen has done his backstory homework: They were adopted from different mothers and Jasmine became the preferred daughter of the adoptive mother (hence easing her way into the lusher life).

Ginger, her ponytail, bangs and tacky clothes helping define her social status, has a rocky relationship with vulgar, highly combustible Chili (Bobby Cannavale), whom she dumps for the slovenly and not entirely forthcoming sound engineer Al (Louis C.K.).

Jasmine, too, seeks a new relationship but is more in need of a job. She aims for an online course in interior decorating but first requires computer lessons. For interim income, a friend of Ginger’s finds Jasmine a position as a dentist’s receptionist. But Jasmine quits after Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) comes on way too strong.

At a party, she miraculously meets her perfect match—wealthy, cultured widower Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who works for the State Department but is eyeing politics. She and Dwight are about to become engaged, but will Jasmine’s past and nonstop lying catch up with her?

Although Allen allows some mighty coincidental chance meetings and sightings to smooth his plot, he weaves flashbacks seamlessly into the present. He also gives the always interesting Blanchett so many scenes and Big Moments that there’s no time for viewers to consider why they’re spending so much time with such a vile mess. Baldwin, on the other hand, whose Big Moments are largely off-screen, is allowed to phone in his role.

In addition to its high concept, Blue Jasmine also affords Allen a rare detour into the working class, while still allowing him, through other characters, his comfort zone of the usual name-dropping (St. Tropez, Louis Vuitton, Le Cirque, Palm Beach, Southampton, and on and on) and upper-class microcosm of privileged people, places and pastimes. No doubt Allen was in charge of the film’s nice music track, vintage jazz appropriately mixed with occasional rock. For those who care, the blue of the title refers to Jasmine’s increasingly “blue” state and the standard “Blue Moon” she loves and heard when she first met Hal.