The sisters in writer/director Woody Allen's latest film, Blue Jasmine, have a telling conversation when they're first reunited that goes a long way toward illustrating their differences. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has just shown up at Ginger's apartment (Sally Hawkins) after her harrowing flight from New York City to San Francisco. The travel is necessary because Jasmine's life as an NY socialite has fallen apart. Her philandering, money embezzling husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), has been imprisoned, their son won't talk to her, the feds took all their money and Jasmine never bothered to finish her bachelor's in anthropology so many years ago which, let's face it, wouldn't be worth very much anyway.
So here's Jasmine, standing in her sister's cramped apartment, surrounded by her many pieces of luggage (engraved, so who would want to buy them?), her makeup melting in the hot sun, and she tells her sister about the dreadful first class flight accommodations. Ginger genuinely struggles to understand. "You said you were broke, so how are you traveling first class?" It's a reasonable question, and from it we learn that for them, the word "broke" means two very different things. For the rich, it's more relative than absolute. "I just did!" Jasmine says. She literally doesn't know how to fly coach.
Woody Allen's excellent script exists mostly in present-day California. The rest we learn through flashbacks to Jasmine's life in New York, where everybody wonders just how much she knew about what her husband was up to. The sisters have history. Ginger and her then-husband invested money with Hal and lost everything, and still, in one of the film's many moments of grace, Ginger forgives and takes her sister in without ceremony.
You might remember Hawkins from her Oscar-nominated performance in the 2008 British comedy Happy-Go-Lucky. Here she seems right at home with an American accent in the Woody Allen universe. Andrew Dice Clay shows up as her meathead boyfriend, Augie, a character so well-written and inhabited I wanted to jump through the screen and give him a hug. Louis C.K. brings his own energy to his small role as a sweet, sex-obsessed home stereo installation man. People talk about Peter Sarsgaard ("The Killing," An Education) as if he came out of nowhere, but he's been awesome in minor roles for years. Here he plays a rich, widowed man looking to make a politician's wife out of the woman he thinks Jasmine is. Why would Jasmine lie and tell him she's an interior decorator with no children and a husband dead of natural causes when surely the truth will catch up with her eventually? It's as if she's hardwired for chaos.
This is a comedy, sort of, except it's as serious as a heart attack and carries with it the dread of a horror film. We're told early on that Hal managed to hang himself in his cell, and this fact, combined with Jasmine's pretty serious mental unraveling, drapes like a heavy cloak over even the film's seemingly lighthearted scenes. Coming so late in Allen's career, it's a gift to be given a film so fresh and current in its sensibilities. Blue Jasmine is a domestic, personal story about corporate greed and its consequences. It's about class and entitlement and it invites you to consider your own priorities.
The film's success belongs to Blanchett, an actress who, on a dime, can go from hysterical pill-popping to graceful. As Jasmine she's indulgent, narcissistic and privileged. She doesn't think she's cut out for a menial job. Of course, nobody wants to do menial work but most of us suck it up and do it anyway. Yet Blanchett manages the tremendous task of earning our compassion. The fact is, she hasn't yet come to the edge of fully comprehending how the world really works yet. When she talks about the humiliation she suffers after she finds herself working in a shoe store in Manhattan, waiting on customers she used to organize luncheons with, you really do feel for herand it's startling. I didn't know I had that kind of sympathy in me.
Blue Jasmine continues at the Wilma Theatre.