Don’t look for many laughs in Woody Allen’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” which returns to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. But do look for an outstanding performance by Australian actress Cate Blanchett as the uber-rich New Yorker fallen on hard times. Also returning to the Film Center this weekend is “20 Feet from Stardom,” a documentary about pop music back-up singers.
Although Woody Allen built his reputation on urban comedies, “Blue Jasmine” shifts mostly into tragic mode as it tracks the descent of its broken heroine. Islanders will get a kick out of the director’s Vineyard allusion. It comes when Jasmine, née Jeannette, recounts how she met her financier husband Hal, played with devilish relish by Alec Baldwin, at a party on Martha’s Vineyard. The Rodgers and Hart classic, “Blue Moon” was playing; hence the movie’s title.
As the movie opens, Jasmine is talking the ear off her airplane seat companion before arriving in San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger, played in exquisite counterpoint by British movie comedienne Sally Hawkins. Designer luggage and clothes signal the high-flying lifestyle Jasmine has left behind in New York. After her womanizing husband went to jail for his Madoff-like schemes, Jasmine is now penniless, planning to regroup at Ginger’s, although she has inexplicably managed to fly first class.
Mr. Allen paints in the same broad strokes he uses with such success in his comedies to tell Jasmine’s story, and “Blue Jasmine” does have its comic moments. Ginger’s boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and his pal, Eddie (Max Casella), are stereotypes of working class clowns. So is Ginger’s ex, Augie, played by Andrew Dice Clay, although to a lesser extent. The dialogue can be awkward and bumpy — often the case in Woody Allen movies — when Ginger and her working-class friends interact with Jasmine and her pretensions. Flashbacks and Jasmine’s disturbed penchant for talking to no one in particular explain what has happened to turn her into a tranquilizer-popping, wine-slurping disaster.
Despite its echoes of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Blue Jasmine” is less notable for its storyline than it is for the powerful performance Ms. Blanchett gives. She turns Jasmine into a haunting, larger-than-life character.
Mr. Allen mutes his portrait of corrupted wealth — a world the director feels more comfortable in — by focusing on Jasmine’s nostalgia for her lost lifestyle, on her unspoken complicity in her husband’s wrongdoings, and on her increasing mental imbalance. As a result, “Blue Jasmine” sends mixed messages about its heroine. Should we indict Jasmine as a co-conspirator, or sympathize with her as collateral damage? Mr. Allen pushes her in one direction, Ms. Blanchett in the other, more sympathetic one. Viewers will have to decide which version most satisfies them.
Sharing screen space at the Film Center is Morgan Neville’s award-winning documentary, “20 Feet from Stardom,” about the backup singers who helped the likes of Sheryl Crow, David Bowie, Ray Charles, and others to create their sound signatures. In many cases, backup performers like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer may bring as much talent to the table as the headliners they work with. The film examines their role in the music business and the reasons why, in some cases, they may choose not to pursue full-fledged stardom.
“Blue Jasmine,”Thursday, August 29, Friday, August 30, and Monday, September 2, 7:30 pm (also 9:30 pm on Friday), M.V Film Center, Vineyard Haven.
“20 Feet from Stardom,” Friday, August 30, 9:30 pm; Saturday, August 31, 7:30 and 9:30 pm, M.V. Film Center. $12; $7 for MV Film Society members. For tickets and more information, visit mvfilmcenter.com.