For anyone who's been going to the movies at all regularly over the past 45 years, Woody Allen is practically family. His movies may draw fewer passionate responses than they did in the '70s and '80s, but we still feel compelled to reckon with him. Whenever Allen comes out with a new one — which he continues to do with alarming frequency — those of us who still care even moderately may ask, "How is he this time?" as if he were an infirm relation who's reached the stage where he's blessed with a few good days among the many bad ones.
Blue Jasmine is a bad day. Cate Blanchett's Jasmine is a fragile little thing who's in a fix. She used to have money but finds herself washed up because of malfeasance on the part of her now-absent big-businessman husband (Alec Baldwin). She lights on the San Francisco home of her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), armed with a passel of Louis Vuitton suitcases filled with posh-girl outfits. Ginger dresses in working-class brights and synthetic fabrics, and she takes up with, in Jasmine's estimation, the "wrong" men — her current beau is Bobby Cannavale's dese/dem/dose hunk whose mere presence gets right under Jasmine's Crème de la Mer-nourished skin.
Although Jasmine would prefer to rely on the kindness of strangers, she must learn a trade. But what? How about interior decorating? She's convinced she can earn the necessary certificate online but knows nothing about computers. So Jasmine does what any self-respecting Allen character would do in 2013: She enrolls in a computer class, for which she must study assiduously after-hours, even in her spare time at the receptionist job she reluctantly takes.
You can forgive Allen for thinking "computer school" is the best way to "get online." But Blue Jasmine is so relentlessly clueless about the ways real human beings live, and so eager to make the same points about human nature that Allen has made dozens of times before, that it seems like a movie beamed from another planet.
Allen wants to examine humans without actually touching them. That's nothing new, and plenty of his movies — like the sterile, condescending Match Point — are guilty of it. But Midnight in Paris, brushed with the anxious, dreamy desire to be somewhere else, suggested Allen might have gotten off this kick. Going back to 1920s Paris isn't a realistic method of escaping your neuroses, but wouldn't it be wonderful if it were?
In Blue Jasmine, Allen is back in full-on sourpuss mode, even as he purports to be providing a grand showcase for Blanchett. Other actors don't fare so well. Louis C.K. shows up as one of Ginger's suitors, and he and Hawkins have an easy rapport, like puppies gamboling in the grass — their scenes together are the breeziest and most enjoyable in the movie. But it's too good to last: C.K.'s character is turned into a handy symbol of how humans let you down. Only Andrew Dice Clay, in a small role as Ginger's Low-ClassTM onetime husband, pierces the movie's highly polished bubble world; he comes off as a person whose veins run with blood rather than a director's conceit.
But Blanchett is the movie's centerpiece, the fragile porcelain bird perched oh-so-high on its mantel. She has played almost this exact role before, onstage, as Blanche DuBois in a Liv Ullmann-directed version of A Streetcar Named Desire. I saw that production, and you could practically hear Blanchett's eyelashes fluttering, but that doesn't necessarily make a great Blanche — the performance was touching in places, but it was also mannered and precise, like an artfully torn piece of silk.
The same goes for Blanchett as Jasmine, a troubled soul who talks to herself in ghostly, flirtatious patter, swanning about in a cream-colored Chanel jacket, a remnant of the previous pampered life she can't quite leave behind. Jasmine is ill-equipped to live in the normal world, where people bleed, sweat, and have a sex drive. She rebuffs the sexual advances of her boss (Michael Stuhlbarg) as if he were a caveman and not just a possibly lonely guy who finds her attractive.
Jasmine prefers to retreat into flashbacks, and this is how we learn she's not quite — or not just — the fragile victim she appears to be. She is supposed to be complex, challenging, affecting. Blanchett strikes each note as precisely as if she were hitting the bars on a xylophone, and in this way, she fits into Allen's schematic perfectly. Maybe the idea is that he, like her, feels lost in the modern world, where people use computers to "get online." But he's not the first 70-something to feel left behind, and he won't be the last. The chief tone he strikes in Blue Jasmine is one of simpering self-pity. Blanche DuBois covered the bare lightbulb in her room to create enchantment. Allen would rather just tell us how hot and ugly it is.