There’s something comfortingly old-fashioned about a Woody Allen picture. Characters still talk of nervous breakdowns, hot jazz jauntily sets scenes, and Google doesn’t seem to exist.
And thank goodness for that last one. If a certain character had done a simple Internet search on another — and you will wonder why he doesn’t — there would be no point to “Blue Jasmine,” which turns out to be a rather un-Woody Allen-esque film and one of this summer’s greatest pleasures.
The mood is antiquated, but the story is ripped from (relatively recent) headlines. The delicate Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) flies from New York to San Francisco to spend some time with her much warmer sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Not because Jasmine misses her sibling, or because she wants a vacation on the West Coast. Jasmine doesn’t have any choice — or any other place to live. The woman once known for lavish dinner parties in her beautiful Park Avenue home no longer has the home or even the dinnerware. Her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was indicted by the FBI and given a long prison sentence for Bernie Madoff-like crimes.
Jasmine, claiming cluelessness, escaped punishment — formal punishment, that is. Moving into her blue-collar sister’s small apartment and being forced to find a job for the first time in her life make San Francisco feel like a prison. Instead of an orange jumpsuit, though, she wears elegant, expensive ensembles and carries an Hermes bag. (One can’t sell all one’s possessions, after all.)
Which is how, despite clearly being on the edge of another breakdown, Jasmine catches the attention of Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). He’s a diplomat planning to transition to elected office, which means he needs a tasteful wife who’s a good hostess and knowing conversationalist. After “slaving away” at work she first considered too “menial” — it’s simply an office job — and still unable to afford her own place, let alone a better brand of the vodka she drinks straight, Jasmine finds the idea of marrying back into money irresistible. (And Mr. Sarsgaard is rather more charming than Mr. Baldwin, as smooth as he is.) We see a less broken Jasmine in flashbacks, which also explain how Hal lost the life savings of Ginger and her first husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay).
You’ve paused just now, and with good reason: Foul-mouthed “comedian” Andrew Dice Clay has been cast in a movie by one of America’s most philosophic filmmakers? Mr. Clay hasn’t acted on the big or small screen for over a decade, except for playing himself in “Entourage.” This doubter had to admit defeat soon after the declasse Augie appeared, however. It’s brilliant casting.
Almost as good is Bobby Cannavale as Ginger’s current squeeze, Chili, who might be a slight step up from Augie but is no less repellent to Jasmine. It’s Ginger, of course, not the neurotic Jasmine, who gets all the sexual satisfaction in this film. At the party where her sister met the politico, Ginger makes her own connection, less well-heeled but more Ginger’s speed (i.e., fast) in Al (another, funnier, comedian, Louis C.K.).
Miss Hawkins, an actress only director Mike Leigh seems to appreciate properly, discards her English accent for her marvelous turn as Ginger. But the story, and the film, belong to the title character, and Miss Blanchett, not unexpectedly, delivers. The look on her face when Chili goes in for a welcome kiss is almost worth the price of admission alone.
“Blue Jasmine” is quite unlike most of Mr. Allen’s previous movies, but it has his trademark mix of comedy and crisis. There’s no “Woody Allen character” here, as is usually the case with even those of his films in which he doesn’t appear. “Blue Jasmine” plays out, finally, as a mystery whose secrets are slowly (and surprisingly) revealed as those flashbacks come ever closer to the present.
Mr. Allen hasn’t made a film in America for a few years, but he still understands his native land and some types of its inhabitants in a way no one else does. He might know little about today’s technology, but Woody Allen has made a funny and knowing film about the other ways we live now.
TITLE: “Blue Jasmine”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Woody Allen
RATING: PG-13 for mature thematic material, language and sexual content
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS