Recently, Sony Pictures Classics was sued by the rights holders of William Faulkner's work, who objected to Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" employing the slightly paraphrased quotation, "The past is not dead. Actually, it's not even past." Last month, Sony prevailed, and eight days later, released Woody's latest, "Blue Jasmine," in which the words have changed but the song remains the same.
"I want the past past," says Jasmine. Fat chance of that. The haunted protagonist of "Blue Jasmine," played by Cate Blanchett, can't forget her bygone bliss and the horrifying loss of it. A Park Avenue socialite accustomed to quality time in the Hamptons and Martha's Vineyard, Jasmine has lost it all and landed on the San Franciscan doorstep of her working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a good soul sorely tested by her long-absent sibling's out-of-touch demands.
Jasmine asks, "People reinvent themselves, don't they?" but what she craves is something more like reinstatement. She rejects a job opportunity in a dentist's office ("Jesus! It's too menial!") and thrills to the possibility of repeating history by attaching herself to a man for security, an unsettling theme for both sisters. Badly burned by her Bernie Madoff-esque husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), Jasmine sees new possibilities with a sleek, well-appointed diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard).
Jasmine and Ginger were both adoptive sisters, but when Jasmine made her social-clambering escape, she never looked back, becoming accustomed not only to a certain lifestyle but to a fabulous selfishness, insulated by willful obliviousness. "When Jasmine doesn't want to know something," Ginger explains, "she has a habit of looking the other way." But Jasmine's fall has broken her, and that nervous breakdown has left her manic and prone to all-consuming flashbacks that Allen layers into the story with structural finesse, each memory plausibly triggered by a present moment.
Meanwhile, Ginger has a loving if somewhat boorish fiance in Chili (Bobby Cannavale), her own replacement for an ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay's surprisingly resonant Augie). Naturally, Jasmine's dissatisfaction with anything she deems declasse (including, to her constant horror, herself) pits her against Chili, which contributes to Ginger's exploration of another romantic option: Louis C.K.'s middle-class sound engineer Al. While the story is awash in the various prevarications the characters inflict on each other, it's the ultimate, socially agreed-upon lie of class distinction that pervades "Blue Jasmine." (Unfortunately, Allen proves a bit dialect-deaf in casting San Francisco's working-class men, to a one, in the New York-mook mold.)
Certainly, "Blue Jasmine" is Allen's riff on "A Streetcar Named Desire" ("A Cable Car Named Desire"?), an impression only helped along by the casting of Blanchett, who played Blanche DuBois in an acclaimed 2009 production transplanted from Sydney to Brooklyn. Blanchett is a force of nature as Jasmine: the beating heart that keeps the conspicuously schematic picture alive and kicking, and a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. Though "Blue Jasmine" is much more of a drama than a comedy, Blanchett's comic brio, in Jasmine's blithely imperious manner, magically complements her tragic mental fragility and self-defeating desperation.