Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has had a precipitous fall from grace. She once was high society New York City, with an enormously successful and fabulously wealthy husband, Hal (Alex Baldwin), who loved to spoil her. She loved to tell the story about how she didn’t finish college because he just swept her off her feet. She obviously enjoys the upscale shopping, the lingering lunches at elegant restaurants, the parties, the ritual cocktail hour, the spontaneous gifts of expensive jewelry. They never really got around to having children. Their lives just seemed so full already, there just didn’t seem to be any more time. She pretended to know little about the high finances and Hal’s leveraged entrepreneurship; she just signed what he wanted her to sign and had another vodka martini.
Then it all came undone. Jasmine sensed that she was turning a blind eye to that which she did not wish to see. But she had no idea how many affairs Hal had been enjoying until she actually caught him, and then he tried to tell her he’s in love. So, in a fit of vengeful pique, she calls the FBI on him, figuring that was a way to really hit him where it hurt. But she wasn’t astute enough to figure out that it would make the bottom fall out of her world, as well. They lost everything. Hal went to prison, and bewildered Jasmine, designer luggage in hand, knows nothing to do other than show up at the door of her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
It’s a clever plot ploy to establish that both sisters were adopted so they don’t have to look a thing like each other, and they don’t. In fact, they’re pretty much complete opposites: Ginger is short and dark and wiry; Jasmine is tall and blond and elegant. Ginger works at a grocery store in the produce department. Her ex-husband was a handyman who still blames Jasmine for advising him to invest what little money he had with Hal. They have two young boys who are about as interesting as pillowcases. Ginger has a boyfriend who’s a mechanic; he dotes on Ginger but isn’t gentlemanly enough to be nice to Jasmine, whom he sees as not only a freeloader, but a snobby one, at that, and one who is actively trying to prevent him from getting it on with Ginger.
Jasmine is desperate, but has never really had to take care of herself, and doesn’t know how now. She doesn’t realize what an imposition she is. She’s either unaware of how haughty and imperious she can be, or somehow feels she’s only being truthful. She never has any impulse to help anyone else, but will gladly accept any rescuing anybody wishes to do for her. When she finally meets a suitor whose casual largesse suggests good “breeding” (read “old money”), she can barely contain her enthusiasm at being presented with the “right” opportunity, and she’s not going to let a little thing like complete honesty stand in the way.
If Jasmine is this despicable, why do we like her? Because her vulnerability makes her compelling? Because we, too, want to take care of her? Because she’s charming and complicated and elegant, and we’d like for her to find herself comfortably ensconced in her fairyland bubble again? Or is it just because Cate Blanchett is so incredibly powerful in this role that we cannot help but root for her character?
This performance feels like an Oscar nomination. The Woody Allen movie itself will probably not break box office records; most of us 99% don’t really enjoy watching the 1% look down their noses at us, and won’t really want to pay to see it. But Jasmine is a classic tragic character not easily forgotten.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.