A Muni bus named 14-Mission: Blanche DuBois on South Van Ness
I am willing to forgive Woody Allen the misstep that was last year’s disappointing and forgettable To Rome With Love, since perhaps he needed to get that rote entry out of his system in order to make one of his finest films in years, Blue Jasmine. Sure to become one of his best known pictures, on par with such perceptive and tightly constructed works as Interiors, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Match Point, this terrific film will no doubt be a strong contender for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress at Oscar time.
Woody Allen must have ventured into Brooklyn to catch Cate Blanchett’s performance as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire back in 2009 during that Sydney production’s U.S. tour and been so inspired that, four years later, he decided to cast her in nearly an identical role in his updated, urban take on the Tennessee Williams classic. The Blanche clone Blanchett plays here is Jasmine, the elegant, emotionally delicate former wife of a well-to do financier of questionable ethics, Hal (Alec Baldwin, wonderfully smooth and sleazy as a Bernie Madoff type). In flashbacks, we see Hal and Jasmine enjoying the high society life in Manhattan, until Hal’s creative business dealings catch up with him, and Jasmine loses everything (imagine if Belle Reve had been a Park Avenue penthouse).
Like Blanche DuBois, Jasmine is forced by circumstances to move in with her working-class sister, grocery checker Ginger (Sally Hawkins, earthy and appealing), who lives in San Francisco with her two sons in a small, unglamorous Mission-area apartment, and whose blue collar lifestyle is anathema to Jasmine. Refined Jasmine can barely contain her disdain, and particularly harps on Ginger’s choice of men, who include not one, but three Stanley Kowalski types: ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), mechanic boyfriend Chili (a Brando-esque Bobby Cannavale), and new interest Al (Louis C.K., earnest and affable). A particularly well-directed scene with Ginger and Chili watching a fight on TV while Jasmine tries to study in the next room is reminiscent of the Streetcar scene in which Stanley and his buddies are playing poker while Blanche and Stella whisper in the next room, similarly highlighting the characters’ different class sensibilities.
The parallels to the play don’t end there, though; you can practically see those infamous colored lights going off when Chili chases Ginger into the bedroom, playfully fighting over a last piece of pizza. Jasmine also, like Blanche, spends an inordinate amount of time looking for, and drinking, Ginger’s liquor, in an unsuccessful attempt to numb herself to her current situation and escape painful memories. And when Jasmine meets Dwight, a sophisticated diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard), he becomes the Mitch to her Blanche; just like Blanche, Jasmine hopes this new suitor will rescue her from her situation and return her to a life of wealth, style, and privilege.
The story unfolds from there, and Allen has extracted amazing performances from all his actors, particularly the remarkable Blanchett, whose desperate struggle between fragility and resilience is both heartbreaking and awe inspiring. Hawkins, too, as Stella (er, Ginger), expertly captures Ginger’s wavering commitment to her sister, whom she loves, but maybe doesn’t like, or even respect. And even Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) gives a scene stealing performance in a small part as a creepy dentist who hires Jasmine for office work.
Aside from the stellar performances and the nuanced, thoughtful screenplay, for Bay Area natives especially, the film is great fun to watch for all its San Francisco locations (this picture is Allen’s first filmed in San Francisco since 1972’s Play it Again Sam). Give Allen credit for avoiding clichéd, typically photogenic spots; there are no Alcatraz vistas or sunlit Painted Ladies here. Instead, Allen showcases the grittier, industrial side of the City. Ginger’s apartment is above the New Central Café on 14th and South Van Ness, and she and Al take a stroll along Ocean Beach. Other featured locations include everyone’s favorite brunch spot, The Ramp, as well as Chinatown and South Park. Allen even forgoes sunny blue skies to capture the gray and foggy days so familiar to San Francisco locals.
With its themes of loss, struggle, and pain, Blue Jasmine is both timely and timeless, a beautiful, smart, poignantly funny, and haunting picture that imbues viewers with an overriding sense of ethereal sadness they won’t soon shake. Here’s hoping, then, that, come February, Woody Allen, Cate Blanchett, and the film itself can depend on the kindness of strangers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Blue Jasmine opens in Bay Area theaters today.