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Blue Jasmine

Or Woody Allen’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”. The parallels are so blatant, that it can’t be taken as anything but homage. And that’s okay. Why not “Streetcar”? Substitute San Francisco for New Orleans and make Blanche DuBois a modern New York socialite named Jasmine and simply follow the blueprint after that. It’s only one of the ten best American plays ever written, so what’s wrong with mining Tennessee Williams for some compelling film material. Besides, I loved it when Woody payed tribute to Fellini’s  “La Strada” in 1999’s “Sweet and Lowdown”, so this path does have precedent. And “Blue Jasmine”, along with 2011’s “Midnight in Paris”, ranks among Allen’s best of the last 25 years. Also, Julie Delpy suddenly has major competition for this year’s Best Actress Oscar honors in the form of the luminous and brilliant Cate Blanchett. Cate is a marvel here, and it’s not difficult to imagine her grabbing her second golden statue come March.

Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis(Ms. Blanchett)flies from New York to her barely-getting-by sister’s apartment in San Francisco. When it’s discovered that she sat in first class, sister Ginger(the always perfect Sally Hawkins)immediately chides her elder sibling. Apparently, Jasmine is dead broke and therefore coming to live with Ginger for a while. She’s also suffered some level of a nervous breakdown. Jasmine occasionally trails off and babbles to herself, takes medication, and also drinks heavily. But she’s also an obviously sophisticated and well-bred woman. We soon learn that her downfall was the result of her crooked financial wiz husband Hal(a slim and superb Alec Baldwin)being nabbed by the feds and getting thrown in jail. While in prison, Hal commits suicide by hanging himself. So, we watch as the fragile Jasmine tries to rebuild her fractured life by taking a computer course and working as a receptionist. This is a major comedown for Jasmine, after years of living in mansions, wearing famous designer clothing and expensive jewelry, and traveling aboard yachts. We get glimpses of Jasmine’s former life via frequent flashbacks, and it was opulent indeed. Jasmine seemingly always looked down on Ginger and her choice of men. Hal even manages to blow Ginger’s “chance” when mishandling a sizable lottery winning she garnered while married to her husband, Augie(a surprisingly potent, Andrew “Dice” Clay). Presently, Ginger is dating auto mechanic Chili(the marvelous Bobby Cannavale), who desires to move in with her and the two sons from her marriage to Augie, but is delayed by Jasmine’s arrival. A fateful party soon finds Jasmine meeting a wealthy, aspiring California politician named Dwight(a smooth Peter Sarsgaard), while Ginger strays with sound designer Al(comedian Louis C.K.). As the flashbacks reveal the road-map to the philandering Hal’s imprisonment(and what ultimately got him there), you just may find yourself rooting for Jasmine to pull it all together for a new life with Dwight. Or maybe not. Either way, Ginger ultimately finds that her options remain limited. But who’s happier? And can you really depend on the kindness of strangers?

It’s such a stellar ensemble in Mr. Allen’s latest, that I haven’t even mentioned top-notch character actors like Michael Stuhlbarg and Max Casella. It’s a remarkable and mesmerizing cast. It’s also a deftly handled script from Woody, mixing the Tennessee Williams outline with the recent Bernie Madoff scandal. And Ms. Blanchett as Jasmine is incredible. The tics, the mannerisms, the subtle deceptions and the grand gestures—this performance has it all. A delicate ferocity is how I like to describe it, as Jasmine barrels forward while struggling desperately not to come apart at the seams. It’s astonishing to behold as the great Cate nails every nuance. Look out Oscar field, there may be no stopping this trolley. It’s a wonderful return to straight drama for Woody Allen, and if he sometimes seems to revel too much in the classist distinctions and the inherent stereotypes used to represent them, well…I bet the Woodman hasn’t had a taste of the real world in quite a long time. But when he culls this level of performance out of Blanchett and company, I’m more than inclined to forgive him.     Grade: A-

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