Make no mistake, just because Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine starts with a gag does not mean it’s a comedy. I have only seen a handful of Allen’s films, but Blue Jasmine is easily the least comedic of them. When there are laughs, they are not so much due to literary and artistic references (as they are in everything from Manhattan to Midnight In Paris) as it is uncomfortable laughter at the characters, who are not insecure, as they often are, but delusional and largely unsympathetic.
That goes double for Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), the widow of a fraud who signed every paper her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) put in front of her and deliberately looked away from his crimes. Jasmine is the spoiled and shallow trophy wife of the 1% who cares less about happiness and love than status, wealth, and especially the appearance of wealth. That does not stop at her, though: she has no problem talking down about her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her boyfriend even if they love each other. Oh, and she and Hal squandered Ginger’s lottery winnings and did nothing to help her through life, but following her loss of wealth, wants to move in. This is the kind of person that you encounter or hear about once in a while, and no words can properly articulate how they make you feel about humanity.
It’s also Woody Allen’s interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire, adjusted for his personal concerns and characteristics. Tennessee Williams was (probably) a closeted homosexual with a (definitely) tortured family life and protective, guilt-ridden relationship with his sister, so he wrote a play about sexual frustration/tension and broken family; Allen is a New Yorker’s New Yorker who has spent decades satirizing and examining aspects of New York life and the social elite, and despite a bizarre, grotesque love-life, is far from closeted or frustrated. So Blue Jasmine is not at all about sexual frustration (it could be, but it turns out his characters are getting plenty on the side), but rather the abundance that comes with the high-life and disconnect between a relationship of status and a relationship of love.
Once again, this is not a comedy, but there are some funny scenes, most of which seek to illuminate (read: indict) the attitudes of a very particular kind of social elite. To us, there is nothing wrong with the interior of Ginger’s apartment, and although her boyfriend may be rambunctious and prone to losing his temper, he is not violent. There is only one outburst for which we can really blame him. To us, going back to school to pursue a passion is something to be proud of, not something that points toward a fall from grace; but for Jasmine, it’s the other way around.
All of this might sound a bit familiar. Those who marry into wealth tend to be spoiled and privileged even after they lose it, you say? But what makes Allen’s account so effective is that it isn’t clear if he is satirizing such an outlook or merely examining it. In other words, what is obviously unsympathetic to the average viewer is portrayed with such matter-of-factness that the obliviousness of the subjects is the most powerful and painfully believable aspect of the whole film. While Allen’s sharp script should be credited for that, Cate Blanchett’s performance—perhaps the best of a long-great career—turns a solid movie into a borderline-great one. She is compulsively watchable, frustratingly clueless, and yet, in a handful of moments in which she talks to herself, she is not so much crazy as tragic. In a sense, Allen and Blanchett are reversing the work of 20th century American dramatists such as Williams and Arthur Miller and making modern-day royalty, not the everyman, the victim of tragedy once again.
But this is not Shakespeare’s tragedy. No blood need be shed. If there’s a tragedy, it is, at least from Jasmine’s point of view, that she is caught in a lie, she can’t fix her life-altering mistakes, and her sister does not need her to be happy. But the tragedy is Jasmine’s vanity and blindness in general, the inability to comprehend issues beyond wealth and status and the unwillingness to look at the big picture. It’s not a coincidence that the same can probably be said of America right now. Jasmine (along with Hal) is a stand-in for everyone wrong with this country; it’s just a pity that making her the protagonist will prevent her real-life counterparts from realizing that, even if it only amplifies her selfishness.