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A few years ago, the luminous Australian actress Cate Blanchett wowed audiences in Washington and New York as doomed Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Despite no small effort on my part, I wasn’t able to catch her in it.

Thanks to Woody Allen, I now feel I have.

Blue Jasmine, Allen’s latest film (his 47th in almost as many years), takes Tennessee Williams’s familiar American tragedy and sets it in the modern era of Occupy Wall Street. Blanche, Stella, and Stanley are all victims of an elaborate Ponzi scheme that has finally gone up in smoke, taking with it the fortunes of rich and poor alike.

As the movie opens, our Blanche, one Jasmine French (née Jeanette but changed years ago to achieve more “panache”) is already relying on the kindness of strangers. She’s chewing the ear off a polite fellow passenger en route to San Francisco. We hear (for the first of many, many times) about her charmed life and fall from grace. At the baggage carousel, Jasmine continues her incessant monologue as she collects her matched set of Louis Vuitton luggage. The other passenger flees the scene.

Like Blanche before her, Jasmine is escaping to the only refuge left, her sister’s place. And just like Tennessee Williams’s faded Southern belle, Jasmine has to lower her rather exalted expectations and swallow a heaping helping of humility. Imagine Ruth Madoff moving in with poor relations above a Mexican restaurant and applying for work as a dental assistant.

Woody Allen, whether you love him or hate him, has always had a way with women. He somehow gets the very best out of his leading ladies—which is confirmed by their 11 Academy Award nominations and 5 wins. I’ll add “so far,” because Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is about as close to an Oscar sure thing as I have ever seen. Her performance is exquisite. It is raw and painful and up-close, in-our-face for much of the movie. She’s like a piece of the finest crystal with a web of cracks that get bigger and bigger until the crystal shatters completely.

As Jasmine, Blanchett appears in soft gold and pearl tones. She wears tailored shifts with her (sole surviving) Chanel jacket and tasteful genuine gold and diamonds. Her sister, Ginger, on the other hand, played by the ever-engaging Sally Hawkins, is a bit frowsy, and unkempt. She contrasts her sister in colorful patterns and too many pieces of costume jewelry.

The two sisters are related by adoption only (an oft-repeated and rather unnecessary detail in case any of us were wondering how they could be so very different). In fact, they couldn’t be less similar, not just in appearance but in outlook and temperament. While Jasmine drowns her travails in vodka and pills, Ginger has pretty much forgiven the loss of $200,000 in lottery winnings (her best, last chance at any sort of financial stability). The money was “invested” for her by Jasmine’s husband, Wall Street wolf Hal.

No one today plays slick better than Alec Baldwin, who is enjoying quite the midlife renaissance. His scenes of conspicuous consumption are somehow simultaneously underplayed and way over the top. He spoils Jasmine while he woos her friend (and her trainer and his lawyer and an underage au pair). He is seductive even while he is so obviously a crook. Jasmine accepts his gifts, plans charity functions, and turns a blind eye.

Back to the Streetcar source material, Allen gives us not one Stanley but two (two and a half if you count a short appearance by an almost unrecognizable Max Casella). Ginger’s ex-husband, Augie (a surprisingly good Andrew Dice Clay) and current beau Chili (the magnetic Bobby Cannavale) are both hulking louts. These men are caricatures, to be sure (there’s at least one reference to a “grease monkey”). But I didn’t mind.

Despite fine performances from everyone in the cast (some not so surprising, others revelations), the movie is Blanchett’s almost alone. As Jasmine, she is not at all likable. In fact, I would say that she borders on despicable. If anyone deserves her sorry fate, it’s this —let’s just say it—bitch. Yet we hope she’ll somehow survive.

The movie splits its time between flashbacks of Jasmine’s privileged life in Manhattan and the Hamptons and her bleak prospects in San Francisco. At first, I expected Allen to play director-tourist as he has recently (in Paris, Barcelona, Rome). But he wisely stays away from the postcard-perfect vistas he’s shot in his international movies. San Francisco could be any city, and that’s fine (but please, someone, tell me how Ginger, a supermarket bagger, could possibly afford such a roomy and unwittingly charming apartment anywhere in that overpriced city). The key is that San Francisco is about as far from Park Avenue as Jasmine can be.

And it’s an untenable step down for her. She’s “dead broke,” she complains to Ginger, even as she criticizes the service in the first-class flight she just took. She’s lost “all of it,” and she’s not just talking about things. She’s clearly lost—or is about to lose—her mind. As the film progresses, her inner monologue gets so loud that she can’t keep it in. “God, who do I have to sleep with around here to get a Stoli martini with a twist of lemon?” she mutters as she reaches for the bottle. Redemption does appear in the guise of a charming diplomat (a soft-spoken Peter Sarsgaard) with a large, empty house on the bay just itching for Jasmine’s decorating eye. Unfortunately, Jasmine’s lies catch up to her and her perfect catch gets away.

Many critics have been quick to say that this is “Woody’s best in years!” And watching the movie is an extraordinary experience. But it isn’t perfect. Would this wealthy woman truly need a course just to understand how to go online? I doubt it. Why are all the workingmen in San Francisco so thuggish (and such obvious New York types)? I was willing to overlook a number of false notes. The movie is meant to be a fable, one woman’s fascinating descent. Jasmine is a train wreck, and it’s hard to look away.

If Blue Jasmine sounds fairly bleak and tragic, on some levels it is. But there are also very funny moments. Because, as difficult as it may be to imagine, Allen does uncover the humor in all of this. And I think that’s where his genius lies, from Jasmine’s being chased around a reception station by an amorous dentist to her attempts to learn to use a computer to a heart-to-heart with her two chubby nephews at a diner.

“I’m a very good babysitter,” she tells them, right before she explains the pros and cons of Prozac, lithium, and “Edison’s medicine” (electroshock therapy). She has hit bottom, but, like Blanche Dubois before her, Jasmine still clings to the niceties of her old life. “Tip big, boys,” she tells her nephews. “Tip big.”

 

Blue Jasmine, Official Trailer