In Woody Allen's latest movie, "Blue Jasmine," the iconic filmmaker smuggles a difficult, challenging drama under the guise of one of his trademark comedies – ironic and impeccably paced. Viewers looking for the breezy fun of his most recent films – the delightful "Midnight in Paris" and the less successful "To Rome with Love" – will be disappointed, maybe even angered. There are many laughs to be had, as "Blue Jasmine" still displays the neurotic humor present in those two films as well as Allen's classics. But in subject matter and resolution, it resembles the darker films (such as "Match Point") of Allen's later career.
The titular Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a once upper-crust Manhattanite who has fallen on hard times due to her husband's Bernie Madoff-esque Ponzi scheme. Woody Allen takes his tale West: Jasmine, broke and friendless, flees to San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who leads a working class existence with her two kids (They're adopted – not biological – sisters, and both are quick to point out what differentiates them genetically).
In "Midnight in Paris," a visit to the 1920s helps its hero understand the predicaments of his present-day situation. Here, Allen's relies on flashbacks to a far more recent past, to Jasmine's life before her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is thrown in jail and she loses everything. She bops around their multiple homes, throws fabulous parties and Hal rains spectacular jewelry down on her like manna from heaven. Underneath the glitz, it's apparent that Hal is flirting with financial disaster and cheating on his wife. But Jasmine, concerned foremost with her riches, is all too willing to turn a blind eye to both sins.
These flashbacks are triggered by the realities of the new life Jasmine is stuck with, sleeping on a pullout in her sister's Mission walk up and forced to – gasp – get a job. However, "Blue Jasmine" is not the tale of a former Real Housewife finding redemption by slumming it with the salt of the Earth. Jasmine radiates snobbery and self-delusion to the bitter end. She is in complete denial – a denial that safely qualifies as mental instability – that this is not a permanent fate for her. In fact, she comes close to escaping it by inventing a separate identity to court a new, well-to-do suitor.
As Jasmine, Blanchett gives an unforgettable performance, which could garner her at the very least an Oscar nomination. She oscillates between a composed, Upper East Side princess to pill-popping nutcase prone to panic attacks. In some moments, she is elegant, graceful and breathtakingly beautiful. In others, she is sweaty, nervous, mumbling and apt to babble on about her life when no one is listening. But in both modes, she is always self-involved and oblivious, never for a second taking responsibility for her situation. The mastery – and cruelty – of Blanchett's performance is that, for how much you hate Jasmine, you can never take your eyes off of her; you never give up hope that she will turn herself around.
Those looking for a hero are better off cheering for Ginger – and had she been the film's center, it would have passed for a comedy. Not only is she kind and generous, but far more perceptive and brave than her tiny frame, street accent and basement bargain wardrobe suggest. The world that surrounds Ginger, along with the colorful men who throw themselves into her orbit, is just as interesting. Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), her rough-and-tumble ex-husband and father of her sons, maintains a fierce loyalty to Ginger, despite being screwed over by Hal's treachery. Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a mechanic and her new beau, never stops vying for her heart. To turn this love triangle into a square, Al (Louis C.K.) – an electronics salesmen and, class-wise, a step up for Ginger – comes in to sweep her off her feet. But Ginger's world isn't without its darkness: All three men are capable of their own forms of misconduct, often far more explosive and surprising than Hal's transgressions against Jasmine.
Both Jasmine's Manhattan past and Ginger's San Francisco present are over-the-top, comic constructions. Jasmine and Hal's Park Avenue apartment, with its pompous furnishings and hunter green wallpaper, makes a mockery of the elite notions of taste. Ginger, meanwhile, darts around talking and dressing like a 14-year-old, with no ambitions to advance from her career as a grocery bagger. In this sense, "Blue Jasmine" could almost be seen as a satire on the socioeconomic gulf that can exist even between sisters in an America of widening disparity.
However, the engrossing performances of the entire cast (the brilliance of casting Andrew Dice Clay in his small but pivotal role cannot be overstated) makes it hard to treat them merely as caricatures, particularly Jasmine, who Allen never lets up on. In creating a character as enthrallingly shallow as Jasmine, Allen digs a hole too deep for his anti-heroine to crawl out of. See "Blue Jasmine" for this stunning and challenging portrait of a maiden's fall from grace, but be prepared to watch her wallow.