Are we meant to laugh or cry at the levels of narcissism on display in “Blue Jasmine”? Both, I think.
Woody Allen's triumphant dramatic comedy is an unsparing portrait of a One Percenter in free fall. It's always extra-funny to see a person in top hat or tiara skid on a banana peel, yet Cate Blanchett hits the pavement so painfully that the guffaw catches in your throat.
Jasmine, formerly married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a rich financial fraudster, shopped till his Ponzi schemes dropped. Beautiful, poised and bereft of any marketable skills, she is evicted from her Park Avenue penthouse and reduced to couch-surfing the cramped San Francisco walk-up of her grocery-clerk sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). It sounds like the setup for a laugh-track sitcom, but Allen constructs his characters with care and dissects their class clash with intelligence. Blanchett makes Jasmine self-deluded, deplorable and train-wreck mesmerizing, delivering the best film work of her dazzling career.
Ginger lives in the moment, open and chipper. Her new boyfriend, roughneck car mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale), was planning to move in before Jasmine appeared. His hostility toward Jasmine is partly fueled by self-interest, partly by resentment of her patrician airs, and partly by an honest desire to protect Ginger. Jasmine drives a wedge between the pair.
Still an attractive woman (when she's not in full Stoli meltdown) Jasmine's prospects seem to brighten with the arrival of a politically ambitious diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard) in need of a woman with impeccable social skills. Other passengers on the film's relationship merry-go-round include Michael Stuhlbarg as a schlubby dentist, Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's surprisingly soulful ex, and Louis C.K. as a sound engineer who is either carefree and amorous or sexually compulsive. All the characters share a common failing, the inability to face inconvenient facts. Lives constructed on pretense can only stand for so long. Watching them collapse is appalling but undeniably entertaining.