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Blue Jasmine

'Blue Jasmine' transplants a fragile flower to San Francisco
BLANCHED OMENS: The pampered Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), prone to mixing booze and pills, recalls Tennessee Williams' Blanche Dubois.

Like a venerable old musician on a world tour, Woody Allen returns, and it doesn't matter that the original excitement of his art has long fled—the old professionalism makes up for the lack of new notes. Blue Jasmine is more ambitious than his recent rom-com travelogues, a tragi-comic rephrase of Streetcar Named Desire set in San Francisco.

The play means a lot to Allen. Forty years ago, Allen personally burlesqued Blanche Dubois in Sleeper. The references to Tennessee Williams are doubled in the title—"Blue Roses" was the nickname of Laura in The Glass Menagerie.

Cate Blanchett, who recently toured as Blanche in revivals of Streetcar from Sydney to NYC, is the penniless Jasmine. Without choices left, she descends into the flat of her all-forgiving sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins of Happy-Go-Lucky), a friendly grocery store clerk in the Mission. Allen shuttles in time so we can see Jasmine when she was riding high a few years previously—when she was the pampered, bubble-bath soaked wife of a Wall Street baron called Hal (Alec Baldwin). Jasmine trusted him utterly, even as an Alec Baldwin character is never to be trusted.

Jasmine works her way back from this plummet, finding a last chance at love with a gentleman caller: the new man is a Tiburon princeling with political ambitions. In the role, Peter Sarsgaard has never been worse, and it's because the part gives him nothing to grasp, the way that it's written. But it's not that Ginger's low-rent life is fleshed out convincingly, either.

Mismatches

The Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe tries to visualize the dull compliments Allen's characters pay the city: "It's so Mediterranean," they exclaim. "If you can't fall in love here, you can't fall in love anywhere." When on the Marin bayshore, Allen has the sense to turn the camera for a long appreciative view of the water. But he gets no excitement from the Mission: it's as if Allen envisioned the Mission as Queens, and once he did, he couldn't unsee that vision.

Any director of a Streetcaresque story faces a problem: the potential of an unevenly matched Blanche and Stanley. One actor can consume the other if they're not of equal fighting weight; some say that's what happened in the 1951 film, that Brando overpowered Vivian Leigh. Perhaps to highlight his female star, Allen splits the apish Stanley into two separate men. Ginger's first husband is played in a comeback role by Andrew Dice Clay: improved, but he's still Andrew Dice Clay. A later beau, Chili (Bobby Cannavale with an Italian version of a Human League haircut) is a garage mechanic who sees through Jasmine's fancy airs, French perfume and vodka-swilling. The characterization of Chili and his buddies are antique: it's like watching The Honeymooners.

Heady Jasmine

Coming out of Blue Jasmine, I imagined teaching Streetcar to a group of young students and hearing "Why didn't Mitch just Google Blanche and find out about her past?" This stupid question is unanswerable in a modern-day version. And still, Jasmine is rich material for Blanchett. She doesn't have Tennessee Williams' language, or the throbbing accent, or the iridescent cobwebs on her—though, as in Leigh's Blanche, the lowness in Jasmine's voice comes out when she's mixing the pills and the booze. She confides that when she was under psychiatric observation, she had a taste of "Edison's Medicine." She gets to seethe with craziness—to mutter with it, to sweat through her Chanel suits. If Jasmine isn't crushed, she gets mauled a little by a drippy pawing dentist, played richly by Michael Stuhlbarg of A Serious Man: "You can learn an awful lot about people by looking at their mouths."

Such gags work—they're what Allen does best. And Blanchett's acting will be aptly described as forceful when awards season comes. Yet maybe the word "forceful" isn't analyzed like it ought to be: doesn't it define a performer taking something unworkable and trying to beat it into submission?

Blue Jasmine

98 MIN; PG-13


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