As Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine toggles back and forth from recent, rosy past to the bare-bulb present, from the East Coast to the West, from tony Hampton soirees to a cramped flat in San Francisco's South of Mission neighborhood, Cate Blanchett is steady as she goes, delivering one of the most exhilarating performances of the year.
Transcending the prolific writer-director's pastiche-y melodrama -- cribbed in brazen chunks from Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire -- Blanchett is Jasmine, and boy, is she blue. A champagne-swilling socialite with closets of couture, Jasmine was married to a smooth-talking Manhattan moneyman, Hal (the smooth-talking Alec Baldwin). The couple were on top of the world, but it turns out their world was built on a pyramid -- as in pyramid scheme. Hal is Allen's take on Bernie Madoff, the infamous investment scammer, and Jasmine is his spouse, blithely hopping in and out of limos and private jets, accepting lavish gifts from her husband, oblivious to his malfeasance. Or was she?
Blue Jasmine begins -- after Allen's trademark white-on-black title credits -- with Jasmine en route to the Bay Area, her Chanel jacket and matching Louis Vuitton luggage about all she has left. She's a nervous wreck, popping Xanax with vodka chasers, and she arrives at the humble apartment of her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in a state of utter despair, and disrepair.
The siblings are hardly close. Ginger is divorced from brutish Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). She has two young sons, and she's dating Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a garage mechanic who might as well have "Stanley Kowalski" embroidered on his coveralls. Jasmine doesn't approve of Ginger's taste in men, never mind that her own has proved disastrous. Still, there is no place else to go. This is Jasmine's last resort, as she tries to pick up the pieces of her life.
All frayed nerves, clinging to whatever flimsy life raft is thrown her way, she finds a job in a dentist's office and takes night courses on using a computer. A meeting with a diplomat (a suave Peter Sarsgaard) could be promising -- he is handsome and refined, and she turns on the charm, scheming her way into his arms. Meanwhile, Ginger is seeing an audio engineer (Louis C.K.) who seems a better cut of man than Augie, than Chili.
Allen, a lifelong Upper East Sider who only began exploring other cities, and cultures, with 2005's London-set Match Point, finds a few photogenic pockets of San Francisco. But he can't find a way into the lives of the not-rich and not-famous: Although Hawkins brings a jittery authenticity to her role, the men in Ginger's life come across as blue-collar cartoons -- gold chains, muscle shirts, greased back hair, tongue-tied and uncouth. Allen has long shown an affinity for the upper crust, and an inability to make any of the other crusts feel genuine.
But thanks to Blanchett, that almost doesn't matter. The scene when she's babysitting Ginger's boys and takes them to a diner -- and confides about her electric shock treatments ("Edison's medicine"), her breakdowns, about the side effects of Prozac and Lithium . . .. it's genius.
"Tip big, boys," she tells the kids, as they quit the diner booth to head home. They look stunned.
And they should be. They've just witnessed greatness.
**-- (Out of four stars)
Directed by Woody Allen. With Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay, and Bobby Cannavale. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes)