Woody Allen almost hit rock bottom in 1992, when his girlfriend, actress Mia Farrow, discovered he was romantically involved with her adopted daughter. His relationship with his own kids was decimated in the custody battle that followed. His power and prestige waned. I bristled at his insistence that "there was no scandal." Was he in denial, or having delusions of grandeur? Whatever the reason, he sounded awfully flip.
That said, Allen can probably relate to Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), the central character in his new film, Blue Jasmine. She loses her marriage, her money and much of her power when her husband (Alec Baldwin) lands in prison. To make matters worse, she's losing her mind, too. Booted from her lavish Manhattan home, she flies first-class to San Francisco, where she seeks out her estranged sister. Jasmine sometimes talks to herself, as if she's hearing voices. She pops Xanax and drains martinis. She's been living in luxury for so long that she has no idea how to function without it.
But it's hard to pity Jasmine when her sense of entitlement rears its ugly head. At one point, she orders a cabbie to carry her luggage, then snaps at him when she wants to use the phone. If he's in her sight while she's on her cell, he's not giving her enough privacy; if he's out of sight the second she hangs up, he's also in hot water. Knowing she'll give him a huge tip, she doesn't see why she should treat him any other way.
Jasmine's sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), has a much firmer grasp on reality. A scrappy cashier with two kids and a hotheaded fiancÃ© (Bobby Cannavale), she wonders why Jasmine won't adopt a more modest lifestyle. Though baffled by computers and horrified by the thought of answering phones for money, Jasmine is adept at two things: believing tales she spins about herself and averting her eyes when she'd rather not deal with something. These skills earn her the affection of a diplomat planning to run for office (Peter Sarsgaard). But soon the lies spiral out of control.
This is when Blanchett shines, recalling A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche DuBois as her character's mind short-circuits. Her performance glistens with realism, not melodrama, which makes the familiar storyline feel contemporary. Plus, she generates sympathy for her character. During flashbacks, we see how deep a hole Jasmine's dug for herself.
Hawkins' earthy, sincere Ginger is probably the most relatable character. I wanted Allen to flesh out a moment where Louis C.K. makes her question her engagement. But Blanchett is clearly the star. In less capable hands, Jasmine could become a caricature of mental illness. Instead, Blanchett gives psychological turmoil a human face, and an HermÃs bag almost big enough to contain the chaos.