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You know who's really easy to pick on? Rich people. In a post-Bernie Madoff, post-financial crisis culture more clearly stratified into the 99 and 1 percent than ever, extreme wealth isn't just a symbol of detachment from the struggle of your fellow human beings but of borderline evil. Being reminded that money can't buy happiness isn't enough anymore — we want stories of the way money corrodes, collapses and precipitates the True and Final downfall of the people who seek it. Why? Far be it from me to psychologize most of the human race, but my hunch is simple: A base need for retribution.
So here is a new Woody Allen movie about a woman named Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) who ships off in her smart, cream-colored Chanel jacket from "New York... Park Avenue," as she puts it, to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in a humble walk-up in San Francisco after her squillionaire husband (Alec Baldwin) is revealed to be a crook. Ginger bags groceries at the supermarket while her two children bounce from room to room clubbing each other with toys. Playful, sweet, and realistic without seeming downtrodden, Ginger drinks beer with lunch and dresses like an 18-year-old, in lightly bedazzled shorts and funky print T-shirts. Her boyfriend, a mechanic named Chili (Bobby Cannavale) is the archetypical big dumb lug, watchin' the fight with a PBR in hand, gettin' angry and then telling Ging how much he loves her as he struggles to keep this single, gel-soaked forelock out of his eyes.
Stripped of her money, property, jewelry, way of life, and what little dignity she had, Jasmine unravels. With the exception of Louis C.K. — whose own show once featured a B plot about how he can't act in other peoples' projects — the performances are great, and carry the movie. Blanchett snaps back and forth between prim confidence and total mania, telling Ginger she really ought to find a more respectable man as she trembles over her Xanax and Stolichnaya, which early on in the movie she takes in a chilled martini glass with vermouth and a twist and moves steadily into having it warm, straight and in whatever vessel will hold liquid. Hawkins — who played a not totally dissimilar role in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" — has a way of seeming quietly grateful in the face of circumstances that aren't much to sing about. As compelling as Jasmine's unraveling is, it's also a foregone conclusion, and the movie's most surprising — and in a way, saddest — drama is when Ginger starts thinking that maybe her sister is right.
But as engaging as the actors are — and not just Blanchette and Hawkins, but Andrew Dice Clay, Cannavale, Baldwin, and Peter Saarsgard — the characters they play and story they inhabit can feel like shorthand. Chili and Ginger are classically romanticized working-class folks — they don't have much, but they got love, and other comforting truisms you've heard before. The women in the movie all revolve around men, and the men are rigidly either Good or Bad. In the end, there's something cruel and a little tiring about how the plot marches toward Jasmine's dissolution. Her only sympathetic quality is frailty, which of course she's too proud to admit to. Instead, she clings bitterly to lies, ignores all warnings, refuses to learn lessons and withdraws to a world even farther removed than the polo fields and infinity pools she used to know.
Is this movie funny? Many people in the theater I watched it in seemed to think so, laughing when Jasmine frantically hems and haws to Ginger that nobody would ever want to buy her Vuitton luggage because it's monogrammed, or when she wanders into the living room looking confused and, apropos of nothing, asks Chili and his pals who you have to sleep with in order to get a decent martini around here. These are intense, upsetting exchanges, softened only by the vague sense that she deserves it. She doesn't. She is a tiny dictator in charge of nothing. Even the basics of her own life elude her. I found myself wanting her to have the one thing the movie so rigidly refuses to give her: Happiness.