Poignant, romantic and mesmerizing, writer/director Woody Allen's latest masterpiece centers around Jasmine (Blanchett), a former New York socialite teetering on an emotional tightrope, balancing between her troubled east coast past and a fresh start in San Francisco. Having moved into her sister's humble apartment, Jasmine ricochets between the tumultuous acceptance of her new limitations, and the dreams of reclaiming her past life's glamour. Join a powerful cast for an intimate portrayal of the battle between fantasy and reality which rages within us all.
"There's only so many traumas a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming."
Such an illuminating remark could have been penned by playwright Tennessee Williams and recited with a mixture of flippancy and rueful introspection by his emotionally shattered heroine Blanche DuBois. But instead, Woody Allen wrote the line, which is uttered with emphatic and disarming bluntness by the drunken Jasmine French, the equally fragile and vulnerable central figure in the writer-director's devastating portrait of a woman who's truly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, 'Blue Jasmine.' Two parts 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' one part Bernie Madoff, with a brave yet stinging dash of self-reflexivity, this absorbing, masterfully etched character study stands as Allen's best drama since 'Match Point,' and marks a return to top form after the disappointing and disjointed 'To Rome With Love.' Sprinkled with Allen's trademark sardonic humor, which lightens the story's heavy load, the excellent script delves deep into the human psyche, exposing insecurity, self-deception, ambition, and greed, while painfully depicting the universal yet often elusive pursuit of self-discovery and self-worth.
With the exception of such comic gems as 'Annie Hall,' 'Manhattan,' and the ever sublime 'Hannah and Her Sisters,' I prefer Allen's serious films, and 'Blue Jasmine' fits in snugly with the likes of the aforementioned 'Match Point' (will that ever see a U.S. Blu-ray release?), 'Interiors' (ditto that!), and 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' (that, too!). All of those dramas examine with incisive acuity the vagaries of the human condition through moral dilemmas, issues of conscience, and the crumbling of hefty egos. Though Allen is certainly a talented director with an Academy Award to prove it, he's the Meryl Streep of screenwriting, winning three Oscars for his scripts and nabbing another 12 nominations. Another one will surely come his way for 'Blue Jasmine,' which highlights Allen's genius for creating memorable, three-dimensional characters and slyly commenting on both the rarefied and down-and-dirty social spheres in which they circulate.
He's also a master of construction. Yes, 'Blue Jasmine' owes much to 'Streetcar' in premise, plot, and execution, but it veers off the well-trod path in many vital ways. I must admit, from all I had read about 'Blue Jasmine' prior to its release, I expected a thinly veiled remake of the Williams classic, but I should have known better. Just as Allen borrowed heavily from 'A Place in the Sun' for 'Match Point,' then deliciously flipped the tale on its ear, here he deftly juxtaposes the core elements of 'Streetcar' with more contemporary themes, making the story both relatable and topical. And typical of Allen, it's almost impossible to digest and appreciate the meticulous craftsmanship - and all the nuances that comprise it - in a single viewing. The first time I watched 'Blue Jasmine' I believe my inflated expectations dulled its impact. The second time I saw it, the film crystallized; I got under its skin, and it got under mine.
Like Blanche DuBois, defrocked socialite Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) teeters on a tightrope between reality and illusion after a series of personal upheavals leaves her financially destitute and emotionally frazzled. With only Xanax and vodka to stabilize her nerves (both of which she consumes simultaneously and with equal parts abandon and relish), Jasmine clings to her wounded pride and acquired airs, which she adopted instantly upon marrying Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Donald Trump/Bernie Madoff hybrid who showers her with opulent homes and jewels to mask his myriad infidelities and shady business dealings. And just like Blanche, once her ivory tower crumbles, she's reduced to moving in with her free-spirited, working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whose Rodney Dangerfield-like ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), and crass, macho boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), resemble Stanley Kowalski.
Tensions quickly rise in Ginger's cramped San Francisco apartment, as Jasmine shamelessly wallows in self-pity, butts heads with Chili, and refuses to hide her disdain for Ginger's cut-rate lifestyle, lack of ambition, and attraction to losers. She also can't mask her own festering resentment over having to reinvent her life and endure such domestic squalor. Never truly possessing a handle on her own identity (both she and Ginger were also adopted; Ginger claims Jasmine got "the good genes"), Jasmine struggles to find herself, but the arduous road takes its toll, and as she aimlessly trudges along, she's held captive by a series of flashbacks, which recall her tenure as one of the Park Avenue elite and the messy way her world spiraled out of control.
In 'Streetcar,' we never get to see Blanche at her ancestral plantation, Belle Reve, when she was in her prime, entertaining beaus and enjoying a life of wealth and privilege, but Allen allows us to look in on Jasmine's fairy tale existence, and it's not a pretty picture. While at times we feel sympathy for Jasmine and her desperate plight, if truth be told, she's not a very likable character. Self-absorbed, out of touch, and shockingly ignorant, she brandishes an imperious air that she only abandons when molding herself to fit what she perceives to be the image either her husband or a rich diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard) who represents her last chance at happiness and salvation desires.
Interestingly, the 'Streetcar' comparisons don't end with the storyline and characters. Like Tennessee Williams, Allen possesses an uncanny ability to invent vital, complex, endlessly fascinating women and give them a voice that resonates with truth. Only Williams and perhaps Eugene O'Neill can rival Allen's talent in that regard, and Jasmine is one of his finest creations. Interpretation, however, is key, and Blanchett gives a tour-de-force performance, completely immersing herself in the role. At once heartbreaking, insufferable, pathetic, delusional, snooty, wry, and self-deprecating, Blanchett embraces every facet of Jasmine and exploits them all to the hilt, yet somehow never strikes a sour note. Even when Jasmine finds herself in the most outrageous situations or crashes through the boundaries of acceptable behavior, Blanchett is always achingly real. Once she grabs us, she never lets us go. Allen has directed several actresses to Oscars (Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest [twice], Mira Sorvino, and Penelope Cruz), and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Blanchett soon joins that esteemed list.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the cast also asserts themselves well. Allen also possesses a knack for finding the right people for the right roles, and here, Hawkins makes a fine foil for Blanchett as her impressionable yet grounded sister; Baldwin excels as the slick, Teflon financier; Cannavale puts a nice spin on a difficult part; and Sarsgaard brings understated style and warmth to his "gentleman caller." The biggest surprise, though, is Clay, as the sloppy, blustery Augie. It's not a big role, but it's an important one, and he makes a huge impression. Though no Oscars will be forthcoming, his fine work just might jumpstart his stagnant film career.
'Blue Jasmine' also brings Allen back to the good old United States (and the familiar confines of New York City) for the first time since 2009's 'Whatever Works,' and it's a welcome return. Allen's recent frequent cinematic sojourns to Europe provided a healthy change of scenery, but nobody knows The Big Apple - or gets it - like the Woodman, and the Manhattan scenes brim with the kind of tongue-in-cheek sophistication only he can achieve.
Though not a perfect film (some scenes don't work as well as they should and disrupt the movie's rhythm), 'Blue Jasmine' is Allen at his dramatic best. Excellent writing and spot-on portrayals drive this engrossing study of both personal decay and rebirth, disillusionment and enlightenment. Jasmine's journey may not be uplifting or pleasant, but it's fascinating to watch and yields many rewards. Even those who aren't particularly enamored of Allen will find it worthwhile, especially for Blanchett's stunning portrayal.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Blue Jasmine' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a glossy sleeve. The BD50 dual-layer disc is tucked inside, along with a leaflet containing the access code for the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Some might classify Jasmine French as a lush, and "lush" perfectly describes Sony's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering of the film that bears her name. Thankfully, though, we don't see the world through her alcohol-glazed eyes; instead, we're treated to a transfer that's as crisp as a vodka stinger and goes down as smoothly as Bailey's Irish Cream. Almost zero grain is visible on the pristine print, which features excellent contrast and beautifully vibrant color. From swanky Manhattan locations to the airy porch of a Hampton beach cottage, the potent hues reflect Jasmine's lavish lifestyle, yet also distinguish the eclectic interior of Ginger's dumpy San Francisco apartment. Primaries and pastels alike exhibit marvelous depth, punching up the picture and enhancing Jasmine's memories.
Black levels are solid, whites are bold, and fleshtones retain their natural tint. Background elements, especially the oddities that grace the walls of Ginger's flat, are always easy to discern, and close-ups highlight facial features well, occasionally providing a shocking view of Jasmine's dishevelment. No banding, crush, noise, or other anomalies disrupt the viewing experience, and no digital enhancements, such as edge sharpening or noise reduction, seem to have been applied.
All in all, this is a supremely satisfying effort from Sony that allows us to immerse ourselves in the intimate tale and appreciate Allen's distinctive and understated artistry.
Woody Allen has never been much of an audiophile, often preferring mono soundtracks over their multi-channel counterparts. Yet as the digital age progressed, he adapted to the times - most likely with more than a bit of reluctance - and this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track reflects his stodgy audio viewpoint. Surround activity is very faint and confined mostly to the jazzy score culled from various vintage sources. There's a bit of stereo separation up front, but not enough to lend much of an expansive feel to the mix. 'Blue Jasmine,' though, like almost all of Allen's works, wears its intimacy on its sleeve, so keeping a tight focus on the sound makes sense. Enough ambient effects are audible to give cityscapes and waterfront scenes appropriate atmosphere, and subtle accents, such as a bottle of vodka clinking against a highball glass or the popping of pillbox lid, are crisp and distinct.
Dialogue, of course, is the star of any and all Allen films, and it's perfectly rendered here. Every word, whether it's casually thrown away, muttered under one's breath, bellowed in anger, or wailed in despair is clear and comprehendible, and no distortion accompanies even the most crazed outbursts. Though far from a system-buster, this track complements the movie well, and its unobtrusive nature keeps us focused on the characters and their overt and nuanced actions.
Allen discs are also not known for their plethora of supplemental material, and 'Blue Jasmine' is no exception. Sony includes just a couple of extras, neither of which - big surprise - feature the writer-director at all.
If you like your Woody Allen on the dark side and with a twist, then you'll love 'Blue Jasmine,' one of the writer-director's most searing and memorable character studies. Though not as explosive as 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' many of the script's subtleties are just as potent, as we witness the systematic unraveling of one of Allen's most fascinating and finely drawn heroines. Both the script and Cate Blanchett's bravura performance as the very blue title character should be strongly considered for Oscars, and the film itself, like most of the director's canon, improves with subsequent viewings. Sony's Blu-ray features a glorious video transfer that beautifully showcases the East and West Coast locales and solid - if rather pedestrian - audio. Typical of all Allen home video releases, supplements are thin at best. In an era when Allen's misses outnumber his hits, 'Blue Jasmine' ranks as one of the director's strongest 21st century entries, and his most substantive, layered, and engrossing film since 'Match Point.' Recommended.