‘Blue Jasmine’

Cate Blanchett has a vodka drink in Blue JasmineCate Blanchett’s woman well past the verge of a nervous breakdown in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” is the proverbial train wreck you can’t take your eyes off. So hypnotic is the disaster.

Washing pills down with booze and babbling with just enough coherence that you understand the extreme psychological pain the woman dwells in, Blanchett’s Jasmine isn’t just blue but dark as night.

She’s a study in contrasts: the chaotic inner turmoil of a bag lady muttering to herself is externalized with the accessories of the socialite she once was — Chanel jewelry and jacket color-coordinated with Roger Vivier shoes and a Hermes belt, scarf and bag from which she can pull a Fendi wallet so as to bestow a generous tip on a delighted cabbie.

Beauty and the inner beast all in one.

Such is the intelligence of Blanchett’s performance that you follow the woman’s drifting mind in every turn. She makes sense of a senseless waste and misfortune.

Your heart goes out to a woman barely deserving of any sympathy since for all her self-destructiveness the pain is so palpable. Alas, this tour-de-force performance comes in one of the Woodman’s least successful films in a long while.

Allen has put out essentially a film a year for over 35 years including such recent gems as “Midnight in Paris,” “To Rome With Love” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay look astonished at her sister's digsAt an age when most artists rest contentedly on their celebrated laurels, Allen remains if not at the top of his game — I count “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Manhattan,” “Husbands and Wives” and, of course, “Annie Hall” among his triumphs — then in top form without showing any signs of artistic fatigue.

Or at least not until now.

Were a fledgling screenwriter to turn the script for “Blue Jasmine” in to his university professor, the instructor would gently encourage the student to give his fine idea a serious rewrite.

He would explain that an opening scene, where the heroine babbles to a fellow passenger on a flight from New York to San Francisco about her troubled relationship with her mostly unlikely sister on the West Coast, is a clumsy way to slip exposition into a story.

He would point out that the screenplay continually tells the audience what is transpiring in the characters’ inner lives rather than dramatizing this due to an over reliance on on-the-money dialogue as opposed to dramatic events.

And the use of perfectly timed coincidences — such as her sister’s ex-husband running into Jasmine just as she is about to enter a jewelry store with her fiancé to shop for a wedding ring, which allows him to spill the beans about her deception — makes for poor story construction.

Yet Allen is the deserved winner of no less than four Oscars for best original screenplay! So what are we to make of this awkwardly written, contrived script?

Maybe it’s simply a matter of the averages catching up with him. With 48 original screenplays to his credit, most written entirely by himself, there are bound to be a few duds. Even so how many screenwriters have a batting average as successful as Allen’s?

Cate Blanchett, Max Casella, Bobby Cannavale and Sally Hawkins cross Chinatown streetWhich still doesn’t quite explain why he fails to notice the obvious flaws in “Blue Jasmine.”

There was a good if not outstanding idea here for a contemporary drama — you really cannot label this a comedy — yet one that needed what Hollywood calls a “page one rewrite,” meaning a complete rethinking of the dramatic structure and characters starting with the first page.

What has not gone amiss here though is one of Allen’s true talents — even if it’s not remarked on by critics enough — and that is his casting. Throughout his career he has a demonstrated an uncanny knack for getting the right actors in just the right roles and then getting out of the way.

In “Blue Jasmine,” he has cast his movie to perfection. Along with Blanchett, Sally Hawkins shines as her beleaguered sister, Ginger, a woman really from another class — hard working, blue collar and normally easy going when she’s not around Jasmine.

Further emphasizing the class divide, Bobby Cannavale beautifully expresses the frustrations and fears of Ginger’s boyfriend, Chili, as he copes with a potential sister-in-law who sees him as a “loser.”

The ringer in the cast, comedian/actor Andrew Dice Clay, has well-played moments as Ginger’s ex-husband, who feels similar exasperation over the destructive Jasmine.

Blue Jasmine's Alec Baldwin graps Cate Blanchett's handAlec Baldwin, who displayed unusual wistfulness in Allen’s “To Rome With Love,” anchors the New York segments of the movie as Jasmine’s late philandering husband. Alden Ehrenreich scores dramatic points especially at the movie’s close as Baldwin’s disappointed son.

Comedian Louis C.K. as the new love in Ginger’s life, Peter Sarsgaard as the new love in Jasmine’s and Michael Stuhlbarg as an amorous dentist who hires Jasmine do well with essentially underwritten roles.

The movie cuts back and forth between two time frames on opposite ends of the country. In flashbacks you see Jasmine’s former life as the trophy wife of an unscrupulous businessman, Hal (Baldwin), a sort of minor league Bernie Madoff.

So the Fifth Avenue duplex, beachfront retreat, race horses and Prada charge account all rest on the ill-gotten gains of her husband’s crooked deals. Allen leaves it an open question for a long time how much Hal’s wife knew about their finances or whether she turned a blind eye to his dishonesty as she did his philandering.

Once his deceptions are uncovered by the FBI and his empire collapses, Jasmine’s fortune is wiped out. She even suffers the humiliation of working in a shoe store waiting on women she once had over for lunch.

In a state of virtual homelessness, her only resort is to move in with Ginger, the sister in San Francisco she can barely tolerate. Judgmental by nature, she finds Ginger’s apartment intolerable and her choice in men, both her ex and current boyfriend, dubious.

(One of the mistakes the East Coast-dwelling filmmaker makes here is the constant disparagement of Ginger and Chili’s digs, which by San Francisco standards are above average. They only suffer in comparison with Hal and Jasmine’s palatial quarters in New York.)

So at the heart of the drama is an examination of a woman who never examines things too carefully herself. She coats her life in a fiction she fully believes in and pursues pleasure in a thoughtless manner. When everything is ripped away and her delusions can no longer sustain her, she has no means to cope other than antidepressants and vodka.

This is a character worthy of dramatic examination and she is nicely offset by a sister who is her extreme opposite, a situation (over) explained by the fact each was adopted from different biological parents.

The actors are so good that the film still draws you in; you’re never bored. But you are annoyed at such a missed opportunity.

Woody Allen has proven he can make a soufflé out of mere comic trifles. Here he bungles a potentially deep-dish drama by not deploying his materials in a craftsmanlike manner.

Well, given his batting average, his next film could well be another gem.

Opens: July 26, 2013 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: SPC presents in association with Gravier Productions a Perdido production
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tammy Blanchard, Max Casella, Alden Ehrenreich
Director/screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Executive producers: Leroy Schechter, Adam B. Stern
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Suzy Benzinger
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
PG-13 rating, 98 minutes