New directors deserve to have their work analyzed over the course of distinct eras. Hitchcock had pre-Hollywood, early Hollywood, and that ridiculous string of achievements in the late 1950s (Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho were released within 25 months of each other). Scorsese had his fruitful De Niro period and everything that's followed it. There's Spielberg before Schindler's List and after.
Those are simplifications, obviously, but the best artists do change gears and perspectives over time, and it shows up in their work. Woody Allen's latest resurgence, which can be called his out-of-town period since he's worked largely outside of New York, has included Match Point (a unique film among a catalog of repeaters), Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Midnight in Paris. That last one gave Woody his third Oscar for writing and was his 14th nomination in that category alone.
Clearly, getting out of Manhattan has reinvigorated him. Blue Jasmine is another critical work for Woody, one that features terrific performances in several spots, has a nonlinear storyline, and like many of his best dramas, does not feature a character who recites dialogue like Woody Allen.
Cate Blanchett is Jasmine. That's the name she adopted for herself, just as her parents adopted her and her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). The sisters don't come from the same bloodline, and it's obvious in everything. When Jasmine flies to San Francisco to crash with her sister until she can get back on her feet, the differences between them are crystal clear.
Jasmine was married to the wealthy Hal (Alec Baldwin) until his financial misdoings and marital indiscretions caught up to the couple. Hitting the pills and hitting rock bottom, Jasmine flies west to start over. It's a huge imposition for Ginger, who is about to move in with a new boyfriend and who has two rambunctious boys of her own to raise. Jasmine had money once. Ginger never has. But while Ginger never truly regrets not tasting the good life, Jasmine is constantly remembering it. Out loud. In monologues to nobody in particular. And they're growing more frequent, repetitive and disconcerting.
Allen's best device in Blue Jasmine is cutting between the past and the present; having a character whose flashbacks bespeak mental illness may not be an endearing way to go about it, but it's effective all the same. It shows how Jasmine and Ginger became the women they are, looking across the room at complete strangers they've known all their lives.
Man, do we need more of Cate Blanchett. She does so many things so well and in such unexpected ways. Mental illness, always, is unforgiving to play. You either get it close or you get it completely goddamn wrong. But Jasmine's self-medication, panic and delusions slowly conspire against her instead of toppling her all at once. It's an even better trick that Blanchett pulls us forward through Jasmine's present while walking us through her more subdued past.
Hawkins is great; she always has a very natural quality to her performances. The men in her life are Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., and Andrew "Dice" Clay. A little Cannavale usually goes a long way, there's not enough of C.K., and Dice is terrific.
For Allen, it's noteworthy that you can't be sure until the end whether this is a dark comedy or something darker altogether. How does he keep churning these things out every year as he nears 80? Blue Jasmine is not his best film, though it would be for a large number of directors, but the fact that he's still finding originality—which seemed to abandon him completely about 10 years ago—is remarkable.