“Blue Jasmine” is a good Woody Allen movie with a very great Cate Blanchett performance at its center. She plays Jasmine, a Park Avenue power wife (born Jeanette) whose privileged existence has burst like a soap bubble. We first meet her on an airplane, narrating her life story to a fellow passenger who couldn’t be less interested, and we assume Jasmine is just one of those narcissistic over-sharers we all bump into in life. And then we see the crazy in her eyes.
Jasmine is arriving in San Francisco for an extended stay with her blue-collar sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Actually, she has no other place to go: In flashbacks, we learn that her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Wall Street barracuda, recently went to jail for overt financial aggressiveness — i.e., theft — and hanged himself in his cell. Jasmine has spent so long in the upper reaches of the 1 percent that she has no idea, and doesn’t really care, how the other 99 percent live. Deep in debt, she’s still flying first class, and when her sister asks how she managed that, she responds, “Ginger, I have no idea.”
The film is a curious fish: Allen’s reworking of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Mrs. Bernie Madoff in the lead. It might easily have been a comedy — there are certainly comic turns among the supporting cast, including a few actual stand-up performers — but Blanchett’s intensity, her commitment to this woman in all her monstrous, heartbreaking specifics, anchors “Blue Jasmine” and turns it into a character study that ultimately approaches tragedy. Simply put, it’s a movie that explores the psychological impossibility of simultaneously living with and lying to yourself.
Jasmine curls her lip at Ginger’s tiny apartment in a rundown neighborhood, sneers at Ginger’s job bagging groceries, flinches at Ginger’s bland, blobby young sons (Daniel Jenks and Max Rutherford). The worst affront to her sensibilities is her sister’s garage mechanic fiance, Chili (Bobby Cannavale, who else?).
Cannavale cuts an ebullient, lightweight figure — he’s a Stanley Kowalski without the threat. Jasmine’s conflict is thus mostly with herself, and consequently “Blue Jasmine” lacks dramatic urgency. A bigger problem, I fear, is that Allen doesn’t seem to understand how poor people talk and behave. At this point, I’m not sure he actually knows any. Hawkins gives the part her all, and so does Cannavale, but Ginger, Chili, and their dese-and-dose friends are one step away from “Guys and Dolls.”
Unexpectedly, Andrew Dice Clay — the once-reviled stand-up comic of the 1990s, here playing Ginger’s ex-husband and another victim of Hal’s Ponzi games — is able to flesh out his character in a scene toward the end, where he forces Jasmine to confront her past with a kind of bitter tenderness. There are moments of power here, and a few elements of high farce, such as Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as a dentist who swoons over the contemptuous elegance of his new receptionist. (This does not turn out well.) But only Allen would waste a talent like Louis C.K. in the meh role of an audio salesman with the hots for Ginger.
“Blue Jasmine” exists for the scenes with Jasmine, and they’re fascinating even as they rip up your nerves. Blanchett creates a woman in headlong flight from herself, propped up with Stoli martinis and popping Xanax like Tic Tacs. At times her ghosts speak to her and she answers back. Then she meets a smooth-mannered diplomat at a party, and even his name — Dwight Wesley (Peter Sarsgaard) — signals that he’s from that world she thought she had lost forever, the one where everything’s easy because everything’s paid for.
The real subtext of “Blue Jasmine” is money and what it blinds us to. The movie could even be taken as Allen’s response to the economic crisis, but it’s probably more like revenge on the high rollers who stole his beloved, grimy Manhattan and turned it into a playpen for the super-rich. The movie’s corollary — that poverty makes you noble — is less convincing, if only because it’s delivered so simple-mindedly. Still, this is the director’s most ambitious work in years, and it’s gratifying to see him curious once more about what makes people (or at least one person) tick.
It’s also nice that Woody has come home to America after his adventures (“Midnight in Paris”) and misadventures (“To Rome With Love”) abroad, even if he still treats San Francisco to the same tourist montage he couldn’t resist in the capitals of Europe. There are some of us who’ve never bought the argument that Allen is a Great Artist of the cinema — he favors fussy quantity over measured quality, his characters all sound alike (meaning they sound like him), his ideas about social class are banal, and his insights into human behavior are neutralized by his gag reflex.
Which isn’t to say that he hasn’t made a brilliant movie or six over the course of his career. More to the point, Allen knows enough to stand back when an actress takes one of his characters and runs with it. Jasmine is a creation to stand with this filmmaker’s best, but Blanchett makes it better. She finds the grace notes in a disgraceful woman and leaves us stranded between horror and pity.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.