Blanchett is one of many bright spots in 'Blue Jasmine'

05:00 AM, Jul 27, 2013

Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay in Woody Allen's 'Blue Jasmine.' Merrick Morton, Sony Pictures Classics, via AP/


Written By by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

To get a sense of the titular character in Blue Jasmine, imagine Blanche DuBois if she were a New York socialite and married to a Bernie Madoff-like con man.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine in Woody Allen’s latest work (* * * ½ out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday in select cities), and her bravura performance is tinged with haughtiness, dry humor and madness.

It’s one of the year’s finest, most complex portrayals, in one of Allen’s best films in years.

Jasmine’s world has shattered, and she’s damaged. When the film begins, she’s sitting on a plane prattling away to a woman sitting next to her in first class. In a long monologue that continues as they go through baggage claim, Jasmine tells her life story, taking no notice that the other woman lost interest early on.

From the first frames, it’s evident how unhinged this sophisticated-looking woman must be.

Jasmine lands on the San Francisco doorstep of her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), distraught and frazzled. She drops her expensive luggage in the modest apartment and launches into a self-centered diatribe. There’s nothing remotely likable about this woman. Yet Blanchett’s superb performance manages to make Jasmine’s suffering so real that some degree of empathy is a natural response.

The film flashes back to reveal Jasmine in more emotionally sound and financially secure times. When the action returns to the present, she’s staring off in the distance, repeating a conversation from the past, directed to no one in particular. She lies incessantly, recasting situations to put herself in the best possible light. She pops fistfuls of Xanax and tosses back vodka to numb her pain.

She’s cuckoo, baby,” says Chili (Bobby Cannavale), Ginger’s boyfriend.

Allen’s well-structured, deftly written story centers on a complex character struggling with mental illness. Blanchett gives Jasmine dimension. She’s entitled, egocentric and unsympathetic. But she’s also a victim of a devious spouse, heartless friends and a culture whose materialistic values have encouraged her vapidity.

Jasmine had a seemingly storybook marriage to wealthy, dashing Hal (Alec Baldwin). But devious Hal showered Jasmine with expensive jewelry and loving words as he routinely cheated on her, and his shady business schemes land him in prison. By having turned a blind eye, Jasmine was passively complicit in his dealings, which included bilking Ginger and her ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), out of their modest savings. But the goodhearted Ginger doesn’t hold a grudge. Her sister is welcome to stay with her — even if it means she comes between Ginger and Chili.

Jasmine announces plans to return to school and launch a career in interior decorating. For a while, she seems bent on reinventing herself. Jasmine even finds romance with Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a budding politician, until her incessant lying is revealed. When she suffers a final blow, tragedy looms, reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. (Chili and Ginger bear more than a casual resemblance to Stanley and Stella Kowalski.)

There are laughs interspersed, but this is Allen’s most serious character study and his most thoughtful, emotionally resonant work in decades.

Exquisitely blending comedy and tragedy, Blanchett’s eloquent portrayal of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown leaves a powerful, haunting impression.