Blue Jasmine

3.5 stars
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Here is a movie so curiously of the moment for a director known for his more recent flights of fancy and fantasy. Rooted in Tennessee Williams' classic "A Streetcar Named Desire", Woody Allen's 43rd feature film as a director is a layered character study charting the descent into madness of a fallen New York socialite. Think Blanche Dubois as Ruth Madoff with a twist of Gena Rowlands from her heydays with Cassavetes.

If southern belle Blanche was a woman living inside an illusion, than Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) is a woman clinging to one, right down to her surname, which is actually Jeannette. The movie opens on Jasmine monologuing her troubles to a polite older lady aboard a flight from New York to San Francisco to stay with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) until she gets back on her feet.

At first we take Jasmine's rambling id to be an extension of Allen's persona in the movies until the older lady from the plane parts ways with Jasmine, complaining to her husband about that woman who just wouldn't shut up the whole flight. Jasmine isn't so much Allen's stand-in here as she is perhaps his fear of going totally over the edge.

In the neighborhood of South Van Ness lives single mom Ginger in a modest, cozy apartment with her two precocious sons from her failed marriage to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). A tragedy this story is, to be sure, but not without bitter amusement; Allen observes the sisters' first encounter with irony as Jasmine greets the ordinariness of Ginger's living quarters the way a vampire does a crucifix.

It's a wonderful scene that serves to open past wounds centering around the events of Jasmine's downfall and how they implicate Ginger. At the height of their "success", Jasmine and her philandering, multi-millionaire financier husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) led the good life. Flashbacks take us inside their lives lived in mansions, beach houses and yachts as the kind of 1%'ers who are likable because of Hal's generosity to the less fortunate, something he makes a point of imparting on his young son.

If Hal's greatest success is making money make money from, well, we can't be quite sure how or where from, than Jasmine's success is her singular talent for wearing privilege with a kind of sexy austerity. Scenes of her hosting parties for wealthy friends and other socialites are juxtaposed with her new reality in San Francisco in which we begin to measure the great distance of her decline.

The details of how it all comes crashing down for Hal and Jasmine I will not reveal here, except to note that it mirrors the fall of the Madoffs in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which tore Ginger and Augie apart after they won $200,000 in the lottery only to watch it disappear to Hal's malinvestments. The real world outside of Allen's films has never seemed more prescient as it is here since "Hannah & Her Sisters" (1986) and "Annie Hall" (1977) before it.

For Allen, it reminds us how gifted he is as a writer of juicy, flawed and unforgettable characters for women to play. Cate Blanchett's performance as Jasmine is the most dynamic and inspired lead character in an Allen film since Sean Penn as Emmet Ray in 1999's "Sweet & Lowdown", and deserves mention alongside Martin Landau's work in "Crimes & Misdemeanors" (1989) as well as the unfairly overlooked Gena Rowlands in "Another Woman" (1988) in the way those two characters cover much inner turmoil with social masks that project a seemingly calm reserve.

It's a tricky performance that could have gone wrong any number of ways because Jasmine is essentially a good looking but totally vapid and materialistic person in the process of being taken down a notch or two into the real world. When she isn't drinking vodka like it's water or talking to herself in public, Jasmine takes computer classes to become an online interior designer, subsidizing herself by working as the receptionist for a lonely dentist played by Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man). This stuff could have veered into satire, but somehow Jasmine doesn't become a parody of herself, perhaps because Blanchett makes this into an arresting study of a person whose bottom is falling out.

Sally Hawkins is all elbows and matter-of-factness as Ginger, who is more comfy hangin' with the guys and primpin' with the ladies. The screenplay has a lot of fun with her recurring resentment of Jasmine's genes, despite the fact that both sisters were orphans brought up in the same family. Ginger works a grocery store job and traded a greaser of a husband for a greaser of a boyfriend played by Bobby Cannavale (Dr. Cruz on "Nurse Jackie") loosely meant as Stanley Kowalski.

The supporting cast is as good as it gets in a Woody Allen film, with comics Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. the standouts in very warm and surprising performances that serve to humanize them. Hawkins, Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass, An Education) as Jasmine's new hope are all in top form. Part of the beauty of watching this film is observing how they observe Jasmine.

If "Crimes & Misdemeanors" is about a privileged man who gets away with murder and finds he can keep it together alright by rationalizing that his community and his family would be heartbroken to learn the truth, "Blue Jasmine" is the flip side, about another high society type who can't escape her own great unraveling after actually making an ethical decision. Oh, the bittersweet irony of it all.

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