Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Cable Car Named Desire

Film: Blue Jasmine
Format: Starz HD on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I can, I try to watch something off the DVR. For whatever reason, there are a lot of movies I want to watch being broadcast in the next three months, so I need to constantly clear room. More than that, I’ve got things that I recorded well over a year ago that I just haven’t gotten to. Of all the films languishing on the DVR that are on one of my various lists, none has sat longer unwatched than Blue Jasmine. I tried watching it once before and in the first few minutes found the title character so repellent that I shut it off and haven’t come back to it. Sooner or later, though, it’s something I need to watch.

This time I gutted it out past those first few minutes and I get it. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is supposed to be repellent. That’s the entire point. The entirety of Blue Jasmine is about the complete breakdown of this woman who has created a world for herself and then seen that world pulled out from under her. It’s not hard to compare this to A Streetcar Named Desire, and that’s obviously Woody Allen’s intention. It’s not a complete remake of the story, but there’s enough in common here that not seeing Jasmine as a modern-day Blanche DuBois is all but impossible.

Utterly self-absorbed Jasmine arrives in San Francisco from New York. She has evidently spent the entire flight telling her seat mate about her life, an unending monologue filled with what she no doubt thinks are pearls of priceless wisdom. Her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, nominated for a supporting role) is in many ways the complete opposite of Jasmine. Jasmine is all image and a life of money. Her former husband Hal (played in flashback by Alec Baldwin) was a high-flying financier who was actually swindling his clients and who was eventually caught, prosecuted, and jailed and then committed suicide in prison. Among those he swindled were Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), who had won $200,000 in the lottery. It’s implied that this was instrumental in the break-up of their marriage.

The destruction of her marriage, humiliation of her husband’s crimes, and complete loss of social standing caused Jasmine to have a nervous breakdown, which has instilled in her the habit of talking to herself out loud and constantly. Much of this personal dialogue seems to be a reliving of the better times as well as some of the events that caused her to fall to her current low state. While she wants to rebuild a life for herself, Jasmine is her own biggest obstacle. Virtually everything she encounters is something she believes to be beneath her. She dislikes Ginger’s current boyfriend, mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Her reasons seem to be entirely based on the idea that Chili isn’t of the right social class—he likes watching boxing matches and drinking beer. It doesn’t seem to matter to her that Chili seems like a decent guy.

It took me some time to understand how I was supposed to treat the film. I don’t think I’m supposed to like Jasmine as a person. I don’t even really think I’m supposed to feel bad for her. I think I’m supposed to pity her at some level, to think that there is something tragic about her life situation. There’s no mistaking the idea that everything that Jasmine’s life has become is her own fault. She created the life she had and was willfully blind to the problems that caused her downfall. She’s unable to deal with not having the life she once did. Desperate for help, she is contemptuous of everyone and everything that might actually help her.

Woody Allen is one of those directors who has enough of a track record that he can do pretty much anything he wants. He’s been nominated for 16 original screenplay Oscars, which gives him the sort of cachet needed to get whomever he wants for any role that he wants. It’s a staggering advantage for a director, and it allows him to cast his films perfectly. He can take what look like real risks, putting someone like Andrew Dice Clay in a film. Dice Clay seems like the antithesis of a Woody Allen drama, and yet he fits seamlessly into Blue Jasmine. He’s surprising in the role to the point where it might be impossible to think of someone else doing it. He’s smart enough to put people who look like regular people who are good actors in his films. I love seeing Louie C.K. here, and I’ve long thought that Bobby Cannavale should get more work than he does. This is so well cast.

Blue Jasmine isn’t a happy film. This isn’t a Woody Allen comedy, and it’s only really a drama because there isn’t another way to classify it. In many ways, this is a character study of Jasmine, who is perhaps the purest distillation of all of the neuroses of all of Woody Allen’s characters through history. She’s meant to be unpleasant because this isn’t about making fun of her or seeing her as comic. It’s about seeing her go to smash so utterly that there is nothing left of her at the end. And that’s what happens. The last minute or two of the film, if she didn’t win the Oscar for everything else, is one of the purest moments of acting I have seen in a long time.

I can’t say I enjoyed Blue Jasmine. I also can’t say, though, that I don’t respect every frame of it.

Why to watch Blue Jasmine: Cate Blanchett…and pretty much the rest of the cast.
Why not to watch: It’s ugly in a lot of ways.


  1. I didn't care for the character or the film. The only thing I took away was being impressed by Andrew Dice Clay, of all things.

    1. Based on my initial experience, I can understand that opinion. Dice Clay was one of the better parts of the film.

      This is a case, though, where I think the unpleasantness of the film is what makes the whole thing work.

  2. Aside from being too clearly based on Streetcar I thought this was a well made film. Blanche of course is a more sympathetic character than Jasmine but they share many traits. Blanchett is solid throughout but it's those last few minutes that cinched the Oscar for her. They were the only time I really felt compassion for Jasmine. It was at that point that you saw how many of the unhinged people you see wandering city streets might have gotten that way and what perhaps their life was like before, a crushing realization beautifully played by Cate.

    1. Those last couple of minutes on the bench is pretty shattering, and I agree with you--if you can point to a moment where the Oscar was hers, it's that last little monologue.