At the start of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, the elegant and refined Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is coming undone — she’s a babbling, panicky, Xanax-popping mess. Jasmine has flown from New York to San Francisco to visit her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). She claims she’s flat broke even though she flew first class (“You know me. I splurge from habit.”) and needs a place to stay while she reinvents her life.
In periodic flashbacks, we start to understand what’s ailing Jasmine. Her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was a wealthy financier who operated a Madoff-style scheme, stole millions of dollars from his clients and was sent to prison. Jasmine, who claims to have had no idea what Hal was up to, lost everything that defined her — the fancy Hamptons getaway, the sprawling Fifth Avenue penthouse, the social status, the philanthropic causes. She lost her son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich), who was so humiliated by his father’s arrest that he quit college and left home in a fury.
Jasmine even lost her mind. Pursued by persistent whispers that she must have known about her husband’s shady dealings, she flees to the West Coast in the throes of a nervous breakdown. She’s horrified by her sister’s working-class lifestyle, starts drinking too much and passes judgment on everyone she meets. Eventually, reality starts to settle in: A pampered trophy wife for much of her life, Jasmine realizes she has no marketable skills or job experience. She doesn’t even know how to use a computer.
Jasmine’s disruptive intrusion into the lives of her sister and her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), her manic delusions and her arrogant sense of entitlement are all evocative of A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams was an obvious inspiration here). And Blanchett, who previously played Blanche DuBois onstage to great acclaim, attacks the role of Jasmine with a feral intensity. This troubled woman has disdain and snobbery engrained in her genes: When she’s forced to take a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office, her humiliation is palpable (Allen turns the screws by making the dentist, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a leering creep). When she meets a suave, rich widower (Peter Sarsgaard) who aspires to run for political office, she sees a way out of her unstable situation. Her new beau promises glamour, wealth, travel. So what if she must lie about every aspect of her life to keep him from running away?
Blue Jasmine, which is easily Allen’s best and most powerful movie since 2005’s Match Point, is filled with terrific performances, including Hawkins as the sweet-natured Ginger, a woman raising two kids who works at a grocery store and is content with the simplicity of her life, until hurricane Jasmine blows in, upending everything. In a small but critical role, Andrew Dice Clay is a revelation as Ginger’s blue-collar ex-husband, rocking a Members Only jacket to Jasmine’s silent disgust and punching holes through the affected pomposity of the privileged in a blunt but honest manner.
But the movie belongs to Blanchett. She's both sympathetic and repellent as a woman who can no longer live in denial, but who can't handle reality, either. It drives her insane. Blue Jasmine has a funny, comical tone during its first half, but a darker mood gradually takes over the film, building to a haunting, troubling resolution. Although the bulk of his work has concentrated on wealthy Upper East Siders, Allen has always portrayed himself as an outsider to that culture, and he’s never been more critical or disdainful of the disparity between classes than he is in Blue Jasmine. Just when it seemed like Allen was going to settle for cranking out a comic bauble every year for the rest of his career, he comes up with a vital and vibrant knockout of a movie. In other words, Woody’s back - again - and he’s in peak form.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard, Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, Alden Ehrenreich.
Writer-director: Woody Allen.
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Watson.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 98 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach, Sunset Place; in Broward: Paradise, Gateway; in Palm Beach: Palace, Boynton Beach, Shadowood, Delray.