By Caryn James | James on Screens July 22, 2013 at 2:50PM
Witty about social pretensions, eloquently moving about failure and loss, acerbic about family relations -- Blue Jasmine feels like a rich destination Woody Allen has been heading toward for years. It's as if the sibling drama of Interiors were handled (more successfully) with credibility and humor, and Manhattan's skewering observations about money and class given tragic weight, in a film that elicits full, grounded performances from actors as predictably good as Cate Blanchett, as head-spinning as Andrew Dice Clay.
Blanchett is Jasmine, the former wife of a Park Avenue mogul whose wealth was built on fraud. She arrives, bankrupt in Hermes and Chanel, to stay with her working-class sister in San Francisco.
Sally Hawkins is wonderfully down-to-earth as Ginger, the sister who kindly but commonsensically wonders how Jasmine flew first class if she's dead broke. Blanchett instantly allows us to see that Jasmine is not a diva about her situation; she's deluded.
Allen has based the plot very loosely on A Streetcar Named Desire (which Blanchett has played as a jittery Blanche). As in Tennessee Williams' play, we have an emotionally fragile, delicate flower of a heroine, whose past slowly blossoms into view, forced to live with her working class sister and her brutish man. But Streetcar is more pentimento than intrusion here. Allen's most inspired twist was to turn Blanche the Southern belle into Jasmine, a lady who gave dinner parties in a world of unearned privilege -- and contemporary resonance.
He could have done more to explain the extreme distance between the sisters in class and social poise. Ginger's claim that their adopted mother liked Jasmine best isn't nearly enough, although the fact that Jasmine changed her name from too-ordinary Jeanette hints at her romanticized reinvention of herself. That question doesn't get in the film's way, though, as the sisters struggle toward the future, while interspersed flashbacks show us their recent pasts.
In the lush New York flashbacks we see Jasmine's husband, Hal, played by Alec Baldwin as another of his smooth operators, whose crookedness Jasmine chooses not to notice. There is Ginger and her former husband, gauche but honest Augie, played by Andrew Dice Clay without a trace of his bullying stand-up act. When Augie and Ginger visit Jasmine and Hal, the rich couple drips condescension; we skirm more than anyone on screen.
But Ginger gives her sister a home when she needs it in San Francisco, and listens when Jasmine pushes her to trade up from her thuggish fiance, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine has a point: the first requirement for a good boyfriend is not tearing your phone out of the wall (I'd say not being named Chili is a close second). That doesn't mean Ginger has the confidence or luck to make that leap.
The present day scenes are loaded with terrific actors in smaller roles. Peter Sarsgaard plays a diplomat who might be the answer to Jasmine's latest dreams. Louis C.K. is Al, who might be Ginger's step up from Chili. And Michael Stuhlbarg adds some queasy comedy as a dentist who makes a clumsy pass at Jasmine.
But all those flashbacks are leading toward a revelation about how Jasmine's fortunes changed. When it lands, instead of feeling strained as so many movie surprises can, it falls into places as gracefully and naturally, with as much heart-breaking truth and guilt, as anything Allen has written. Blanchett is dazzling in the way she keeps Jasmine's secrets -- after all, Jasmine herself prefers to forget them -- and eventually lets us feel their terrible, destructive force.
Allen may have made some clunkers in the past decade (that Larry David throwaway with the forgettable title, Whatever Works). But along with Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine is major work of his most recent phase. With three vastly different styles, these mature films match the accomplishment of his first Annie Hall-era brilliance.