“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice” (Proverbs, 24:17). That was easy for Solomon to say; it’s harder when your enemy is the ex-wife of a white-collar criminal who did plenty of rejoicing herself while living high on the ill-gotten hog. Who wouldn’t want to laugh in her face a little when life comes crashing down around her pretty little ears?
In his latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen kills that impulse entirely. Allen isn’t sermonizing, however, or being didactic or facetious in any way. It’s Cate Blanchett who imparts the lesson through a brilliant performance as Jasmine, a character who teeters on the edge of sanity throughout the entire film.
The plot bears a superficial resemblance to the Bernard Madoff scandal, but it could be the story of any financial swindler brought low. Alec Baldwin plays Hal, an executive of companies with names like “Empire Solutions” and “Global Innovations.” After he’s arrested — humiliatingly, on the street — his son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich) drops out of Harvard and his wife, Jasmine, has a full-on mental collapse.
When the movie opens, we see Jasmine leaving New York on a plane to San Francisco, where she is going to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Though she’s no longer a resident of a padded room, Jasmine has developed the habit of talking to strangers — or to herself, in the presence of strangers — rehashing old arguments and reliving scenes from the past. After the plane lands, we hear the woman next to her say how Jasmine “couldn’t stop babbling about her life.”
Naturally, things get worse. Allen has made a career playing on the pretensions of intellectuals, celebrities and the wealthy, and there’s nothing better to ridicule the superficiality of a trophy wife than forcing her to live in a small apartment with her working-class sister. Not only does she have to share a bathroom, but she also has to drink her vodka martinis from a mug.
Still grimmer, though Jasmine hasn’t shed the habit of flying first class, she is broke and needs a job. In New York she was forced to sell shoes on Madison Avenue to women she once hosted for dinner. In San Francisco she gets a position as the receptionist for a creepy dentist named Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), who hits on her to the point of assault.
Despite Jasmine’s suffering, she is not a sympathetic character. In fact, she is as spoiled, ungrateful, duplicitous, dishonest and entitled as everyone says she is. The movie is not a comedy, but Jasmine’s discomfort makes for scenes of black humor. (Her dislike of Ginger’s uncouth boyfriend — who says things like, “Nurses are very hot to go to bed with because they have extensive knowledge of how the human body works” — is particularly amusing.) Yet Blanchett’s performance makes us feel for her anyway. No matter how much we dislike Jasmine, watching her cling to the last shreds of sanity isn’t a pretty sight.