By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Woody Allen never cared much about the kindness of strangers. But Tennessee Williams, a much frailer artist, certainly did. Hence Blanche Dubois’ famous line from “A Streetcar Named Desire:” “Whoever you are, I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
However, Allen has always known good material when he sees it, so perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise that he’s created his own Bernie Madoff parable by shrewdly borrowing from “Streetcar.”
In “Blue Jasmine,” Blanche’s lost plantation, Belle Reve, has become the corridors of power and privilege that stretch from Park Avenue to the Hamptons. Her song is “Blue Moon,” not “Paper Moon.” And instead of’ the jazzy, erotic rot of New Orleans, Woody sends her to San Francisco, land of wilted flower power and cable cars. Kinda like streetcars…
Jasmine, played with astonishing courage and nuance by Cate Blanchett (who recently played Blanche on-stage), hasn’t left her heart there; that’s still in firmly anchored in the sleek limosine-life she once shared with her stockbroker husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin, reminding us he can really act when he bothers to).
But never mind public transportation. Not for this fallen aristocrat. Jasmine steps out of a taxi, still lugging her set of Louis Vuitton luggage. The contrast is all the more glaring because her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, also phenomenal in a less showy role) lives in a not-very-desirable part of the city in a large but shabby apartment. She also has a déclassé job in a grocery store.
The two have never been particularly close. For one thing, they are sisters by adoption, which conveniently explains why the waifish Ginger has little in common with the regal Jasmine. For another, there’s baggage (Not Louis Vuitton). When Ginger and her then husband (Andrew Dice Clay) won the lottery, Hal offered to invest their money. Without so much as a second thought, sold them out, along with his other clients.
The high-strung alcoholic Jasmine (real name: Jeanette) wreaks havoc on Ginger’s life — bad-mouthing her boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale, doing well in what’s essentially the Brando role); treating her sister’s children with practiced selfishness; and drinking everything she can get her hands on.
The movie flashes back and forth between Jasmine’s present — a dismal mishmash of loss, failure and arrogance — and her glamorous past, where arrogance is a given and stuff like loss and failure is for those who don’t go to Opening Night at the Met.
And here’s the real beauty of “Blue Jasmine:” though it’s easy to name the two sources for his story, Allen has created a strikingly original work. Plus, it’s funny, with side-plots that bring in Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard (in the Mitch role, if you know your “Streetcar.”) However, Sarsgaard is an entirely reconceived character.
“Blue Jasmine” is unlike anything Allen has done before. It’s different from his estimable early farces (say, “Bananas”). Nor is it like his phenomenal double act, “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.” But you can’t lump it together with “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crime and Misdemeanors,” etc. either.
It is — to go a bit wilted hippie myself — it’s own thing. And what a magnificent thing it is. Go ahead and put the Oscar nominations in the mail.