Woody Allen has been on a run of quite good movies lately, some excellent, some just okay, but this one raised hopes by starring Cate Blanchett playing the wife of a man who lost everything and ruined numerous lives in a Madoff-style financial scandal. Then my friends saw it and declared it "Woody Allen's best film"--full stop, no qualifiers--my interest skyrocketed. Ultimately, I'm not sure it's his very best--I'm also not sure we need to decide on just one best--but it is definitely among the best, definitely among the best films released so far this year, and also answers the question of who will win best actress at the next Oscars.
This contains several references to A Streetcar Named Desire, which are nice and brings resonance if you get them, but are not at all necessary to understanding and enjoying the film. We meet Blanchett as Jasmine on a plane, talking incessantly to her companion. She is impeccably dressed as a New York society woman and says things like "Oh, I've been on every drug known to man. They call them cocktails. Well, the only cocktail that ever worked is a gin martini." Her companion is met by her husband, who asks who that woman was, and the wife says that she's never seen her before in her life, but Jasmine was talking, she assumed to HER, and once she responded, Jasmine wouldn't shut up until they parted.
Jasmine has arrived in San Francisco, where she is going to stay with her sister Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins. As she is let into the apartment, she stops in appalled horror at the place. Ginger is not yet home, and is picking her two kids up from former husband Augie, played by Andrew Dice Clay, of all people. If you could never see the day where you say that Andrew Dice Clay is good in something, I warn you now, that day is coming. We find out that Jasmine's real name is Jeanette, that she wanted nothing to do with Ginger until now, when suddenly she's "family," and that Ginger and Augie lost all of their savings by investing in Jasmine's husband's schemes, on Jasmine's advice. In flashbacks, we meet Jasmine's husband, Hal, played by ideal charm and arrogance by Alec Baldwin.
Luminous details are laid on, all of them interesting and revealing. Jasmine flew there first class, although she claims to have absolutely no money. She pops Xanax every other scene and hits the gin almost by reflex. We find out that she quit college to marry Hal, and thus has absolutely no skills. She wants to become an interior decorator, and she can get her degree online, but she has to learn computers first, so she enrolls in a computer class (this is one thread that rings false, as an online course would not require more than a few hours online, learning how the Internet works). But we see that she has big, vague dreams, and does not want to be bothered with the details. She also will not consider a "job," she wants to be something "substantial." In the numerous flashbacks to her moneyed life with Hal, we get detailed looks at the life of privilege she was accustomed to.
There are plot points to the movie, but I'm not sure they're the most interesting thing about it. Mostly they provide comic scenes as Jasmine clashes with Ginger's working-class life, and is either horrified beyond belief, or hilariously clueless, or humorously dismissive and rude. A lot of it is absolutely hilarious--but you can't really laugh, because the movie makes clear that Jasmine is in serious, serious pain and suffering a great deal. She is said to have had a nervous breakdown, and we find out at a key moment that she has had electroshock therapy, and we see that she still talks to herself. So we're invited to laugh when Ginger's lug boyfriend brings along a hilariously inappropriate douche pal so they can "double date," or to see her humiliated in a receptionist position, but it's difficult to laugh because she's clearly hurting so badly.
As it continues, there is more interaction with Ginger's boyfriend and more effect on her life, more developments in Jasmine's life, and more flashbacks detailing how she got here and what it all means. I'm going to let you discover the many twists and turns (and surprise cast members) for yourself, although Allen has found a good way to find events that bring the major issues and ironies out into the open. It's a challenge to have a movie that is essentially a character study, and find a plot that seems organic, yet teases out more character information and plays the ironies raised off each other in ways that reveal more and more.
Several strands of plot depend on whether or not Jasmine actually knew that her husband was involved in illegal doings, and also whether she knew that he was fooling around with other women. There is a scene of her toward the beginning where she claims to have no understanding of financial machinations, and whenever accused of losing Ginger's money, she says that she was trying to bring Ginger in on a good deal. Blanchett's performance leaves lots of room for uncertainty, even as she's saying this, over what she knew or didn't know. Also, the implication that her husband's scheme also ruined the lives of several others hangs around the movie, but is not mentioned, which may be a weakness. For a scandal as large as the one Jasmine is supposed to be involved in, it's unlikely that all of its victims were on the East Coast, or that Jasmine's face was never in a magazine article. I kept waiting for someone on the street to recognize her. Allen saves a crucial bit of information to serve as the climax, and it successfully has implications and ironies that ripple back to the beginning of the film and all throughout.
Everyone is quite good, but the focus is on Blanchett and she runs with it. It's hard to know if we'd be able to have all this sympathy for her--something crucial to making the film what it is--without the depth and shades Blanchett is able to provide. So it's one of those films where the script, direction and performance all become one inextricable thing, and each would be something quite different without the other. If you're ready for a good movie that is light and verging on fun while simultaneously deep, rich and emotionally devastating, this is waiting.