In Sweet and Lowdown, filmmaker Woody Allen retold the basic storyline of Fellini's La Strada, but did it so well he made it fresh and original. In his new film Blue Jasmine, he uses a story line echoing that in A Streetcar Named Desire, but he gives it enough of his own unique spin that it seems new.
The plot — which you'll recognize if you've seen Streetcar — is this: a woman with upper-class pretensions comes into hard luck and has to move in with her unpretentious, down-to-earth sister. The more glamorous sister precedes to denigrate her humble sibling — in particular criticizing her choice of a sweaty, working-class "Neanderthal" man as a mate. But said Neanderthal (in the role that made a young Marlon Brando a huge star) fights back, ultimately playing a key role in the destruction of his sister-in-law.
It's a tragic story, because the main character's downfall is inevitable, maybe even justified, but regrettable nonetheless.
Perhaps no one but Woody Allen could so blatantly steal from Tennessee Williams and yet succeed in creating something fresh. Instead of Blanche Dubois, a self-styled Southern Belle, he gives us Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), who — despite humble origins — knows how to play the role of New York society matron to the hilt.
Jasmine has so lost herself in the role of social queen, that after her marriage and fortune are destroyed, she's unable to build any other kind of life. In the scenes set in Jasmine's past, her husband (an exquisitely well-cast Alec Baldwin) is a Wall Street multi-millionaire of questionable ethics. Jasmine claims to know nothing of the papers he asks her to sign, but the ill-gotten gains of her husband provide quite a life. Until it all comes crashing down.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Jasmine might well be a character easy to despise; or she might be sentimentalized into someone so warm and fuzzy we had to love her. Allen avoids both mistakes. Instead, he provides a convincing portrait of a woman who, despite less than blue-blood origins, has become a snob. And yet, Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine so powerfully, showing her every sad attempt to deal with real life and reactions to every setback, it's impossible not to sympathize with her.
This retelling of Blanche Dubois' story from Streetcar works because Woody Allen taps into a New York City background for scenes set in the past — before the marriage and career are destroyed. In recent films, Allen has explored London, Rome, and Paris… but nearly all his early films took place primarily in Manhattan, and this is a world he knows that world better than anyone. Perhaps this is why Blanchett, despite having to drop her Australian accent in favor of an Eastern-Seaboard-Park-Avenue way of talking (which she pulls off to perfection, by the way), is utterly convincing.
It's a sad story, but it exerts a fascination, and occasionally — though only occasionally — there are traces of Allen's trademark humor. Baldwin's character adds interest to the story as a kind of Bernie Madoff figure, making it chillingly relevant to the economic climate today… in which Wall Street bankers can become billionaires or lose everything overnight.
Everyone else is uniformly excellent. Instead of one Stanley Kowalski figure, there are two: Andrew Dice Clay (yes, that Andrew Dice Clay, who once made a living as a stand-up comic posing as a male-chauvanist pig) and Bobby Cannavale. Both look comfortable dressed perpetually in tee-shirt and jeans. Each at one time or another hooks up with the less flashy sister (Sally Hawkins). Both men are what the story needs them to be: a working-class mug who doesn't understand Jasmine's world of culture and society, but for that very reason, is able to see through her posing. Both men see that here is a woman who's made a lifestyle out of seeming to be better than other people, while deep, down inside, she's terrified she can't cope with life as it is.
It's the rare filmgoer who can't see at least a little of him or herself in Jasmine. Life, without culture or art to soften it, can be cruel and harsh, and unadorned reality can at times be frightening. The Stanley Kowalskis of the world have figured out how to cope with reality but at a price. They live in a Darwinian jungle and know it.
Almost unique among Allen films, the narrative technique here skips back and forth between two or three timelines. This is a little jarring at first, but one quickly gets used to it. The "present" scenes — which take place after Jasmine's marriage and fortune have been destroyed — are in San Francisco, which is photographed to contrast with the New York scenes, emphasizing beaches and expansive ocean views over New York's posh interiors. The effect is to make San Francisco closer to Nature, which underscores Jasmine's problem: life outside the artificial bubble of Society and wealth is what she can't deal with. Allen, a master storyteller, demonstrates he can tell the story out of strict linear sequence and yet have it make sense.
This device works especially well because the plot lines in the "past" scenes and the "present" scenes finally dovetail in a stunning revelation. The revelation doesn't change our opinion of Jasmine that much, except to reveal the extent to which she has dug her own grave. And yet we understand why and how she did it, and feel that — terrible though it was — it was a choice anyone might make in similar circumstances.
Blue Jasmine is not light-hearted and hilarious fun… it's not the kind of laugh-a-minute delight that Midnight in Paris was… but I'll be surprised if it doesn't win some acting awards for Cate Blanchett.