Imagine Woody Allen’s take on "A Streetcar Named Desire." You’d have a fading, but still-attractive, Manhattan belle (Cate Blanchett) whose pretensions to wealth and culture only thinly mask her alcoholism and delusions of grandeur. Losing her estate and forced into economic ruin, she would need to move in with her distinctly middle class sister (Sally Hawkins). Instead of the culturally exotic New Orleans as the setting, we could have the culturally exotic San Francisco. And she’d meet a very nice suitor (Peter Sarsgaard) that has the potential to take her out of her slump, but she’d lose him due to her epic lies and delusions.
Now imagine the Stanley Kowalski character. But instead of yelling "Stella!" he says things like, "I wanted to get mad, but I kept it on the inside."
The thematic connections between Tennessee Williams’ play and Woody Allen’s latest film "Blue Jasmine" are overt, but the voice of this movie is distinctly Allen’s. It’s that beautiful blend of pathos and dramatically natural humor that distinguishes Woody Allen’s finest films. And when those elements are given to a talented cast, Allen hits a home run.
Allen’s traditional filming style of long mise-en-scene shots empowers fine acting, and Cate Blanchett is captivating as the film’s protagonist, Jasmine (a name that she has given herself). Blanchett played Blanche Du Bois in The Sydney Theatre Company production of "Streetcar" in 2009, and I can’t help thinking there are echoes of that performance in this character. It is certainly acting that demands attention. But there are many other fine performances: Sally Hawkins as Ginger, Jasmine’s sister, and Bobby Cannavale, as Ginger’s frank and libidinous boyfriend, both give nuanced performances -- funny without ever being vulgar or condescending in their characterizations.
Unfortunately, Allen’s cinematography never makes love with the splendor of San Francisco the way he did with New York in "Manhattan." In fact, very little of the setting is present in the film. And there is a disconnect with economic reality and the reality of being middle class in America. Ginger is a grocery store clerk, and Jasmine is horrified by her sister’s home. But what we see is a very nice and undoubtedly expensive San Francisco apartment. Jasmine’s late husband supposedly ruined Ginger financially, but she’s living comfortably in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
"Is there anything you want that you don’t have?" Jasmine’s husband (Alec Baldwin, who coincidentally starred as Stanley in a 1995 TV movie version of "Streetcar") asks her, before his sexual and financial improprieties destroy his life. We all dream of financial abundance and romantic happiness, and most of us believe that a better life is something within reach. But the disillusionment of the American Dream is a reality that we all face, and that is admirably explored in "Blue Jasmine."