Woody Is Back: Blue Jasmine Is a Triumphant Take on A Streetcar Named Desire

Think Blanche DuBois meets Annie Hall

Peter Sarsgaard kisses a delusional Cate Blanchett.

Peter Sarsgaard kisses a delusional Cate Blanchett.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: even on an off day, Woody Allen is better than everyone else on Sunday. But Blue Jasmine is not Woody between triumphs. This is the first-class work of a great talent at the top of his game, cooking on four burners with resolve and focus. This is Woody’s take on A Streetcar Named Desire, with Cate Blanchett combining aspects of her staggering stage performance in the recent Australian tour stopover of the Tennessee Williams classic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with enough contemporary Diane Keaton neuroses to shed new light on the Freudian forces that drive modern Woody Allen heroines to glamorous self-destruction. Think Blanche DuBois meets Annie Hall. Then go immediately and grab the first available seat to the must-see movie of the summer.

Following the plot structure of Streetcar from the steamy, erotic decadence of the New Orleans French Quarter to the concrete canyons of New York and the flower power of San Francisco, Woody tells the story of a modern Blanche so self-deluded that she even changes her name from the simple Jeanette to one that conjures images of the poetic scent of night-blooming jasmine. The movie begins when a humbled Jasmine, her bank account and social status reduced to penury after her philandering investment-banker husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, in the kind of role he plays flawlessly) lost his fortune and went to prison, arrives to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco and searches for her hippie apartment in a disappointing low-rent district—not by streetcar this time, but by taxi. A dead ringer for Blanche, she’s already panicked, shaken and hyperventilating before she hits the vodka bottle for the first of many Stoli martinis to calm her frayed nerves. The object is to start a new life, but first Jasmine must recover from the horror of finding Ginger bagging groceries and rid the cluttered place of Ginger’s new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale as a friendly, charming, loud-mouthed Italian garage-mechanic version of Stanley Kowalski), whom Jasmine considers far beneath Ginger’s standards. Ginger is the opposite of Jasmine’s pretentious illusions—a nice girl who, like Stella in Streetcar, “hangs back with the brutes.” Too refined for his aggressive personality, Jasmine insults Chili immediately. Sparks fly. Combustion is inevitable.

While Jasmine tries diligently to assimilate, working as a receptionist in a dentist’s office and enrolling in a computer class to become an interior decorator, Woody juxtaposes her diminished humiliation with her past life of luxury among the rich and famous—consumed by memories of Manhattan penthouses, charge accounts at Le Cirque, shopping sprees with ladies who lunch, and closets filled with Jimmy Choo flats and Manolo Blahnik heels. Shifting in and out of time zones can be frustrating, but it’s a stylistic formality that grows in necessity, revealing pieces of plot that are vital to our understanding of how Jasmine’s life went south after Hal lost all of his money. Now she’s broke, drinking too much, and her life of yoga, Pilates, chefs, chauffeured limos and a beach house in the Hamptons is reduced to what I call “caviar helper.” We also learn how Ginger and her former husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, surprisingly effective as a crude blue-collar worker) arrived for a visit, invested their winnings from the California lottery with Hal and lost their shirts through misplaced trust, a family betrayal for which Jasmine feels guilty. The flashbacks become essential in ironing out the myriad details in Woody’s brilliant screenplay.

Like Blanche in Streetcar, Jasmine is a mystic combination of purloined innocence and Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis—exasperatingly manipulative but meltingly vulnerable, always waiting for someone to save her. Enter the Mitch character, a wealthy businessman with political goals named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who offers stability at last, until his cruel, unexpected rejection leads to Jasmine’s ultimate break with mental balance.

The ensemble acting is superb, but there is no point circling the fact that Cate Blanchett dominates this film from start to finish. As a mortgaged soul in the gradual stages of a nervous breakdown, she is heartbreaking and hypnotic. From black-belt shopping, window-gazing at Cartier and matinees on Broadway to anxiety, depression and shock treatments, she runs the gamut of psychiatric forensics. Jasmine is blue, all right, but she remains trim and stylish, a real Bergdorf mannequin, until she winds up talking to herself on street corners. The characters are more human and complicated and real than in Woody’s most recent entertainments, there is more cynicism and introspection in the script than anything since Hannah and Her Sisters, and although there is sufficient humor to keep you alert and smiling, I do not consider Jasmine a typical Woody Allen comedy. It’s better than anything you might imagine.

Richly chronicled characters, sharp dialogue and that stupendous centerpiece performance by Cate Blanchett are contributing factors in the best summer movie of 2013 and one of the most memorable Woody Allen movies ever.

rreed@observer.com

BLUE JASMINE

Written by: Woody Allen

Directed by: Woody Allen

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin and Sally Hawkins

Running time: 98 mins.

Rating: 4/4 stars