By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Jasmine isn't even her name. It just sounds better, more substantial and upwardly mobile than Jeanette, who might be a grocery clerk like her sister. Jasmine was always about moving up, which led to marrying that swindler who pampered her into submission. Now he and the money are gone and there's never enough vodka or meds for handling that.
Fragile and rudely denying it, brittle then broken, Jasmine is a victim of circumstances within her control. Woody Allen understands this sort of woman, although Blue Jasmine is the first time in years that he has articulated it with such attention to intimate detail.
It's a role that Cate Blanchett turns into a marvelous bundle of frayed nerves and quicksilver temperament. Blanchett gets to the heart of the crazy in Jasmine, making a lying, self-absorbed opportunist into a sympathetic creature of extravagant habit. The Persian rug has been yanked from under Jasmine's feet, and she lands with that sister and her middle-class life in San Francisco.
Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), had a brush with prosperity once, winning a lottery jackpot that Jasmine's smooth-talking husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), lost in a Ponzi scheme. Augie can't forgive, but Ginger has loyalty to a sister who is condescending to her. If you think Jasmine will eventually realize less can be more in life, think again.
There will be her halfhearted effort to find work and slightly more enthusiastic attempts to find men who'll tell her she's beautiful and buy her pretty things. There will be obsessions and confessions and tragedy that, with Allen's touch, lie just on the brink of being funny. This is a spry drama, juggling the timeline of Jasmine's emotional erosion, leaving viewers puzzled, then clued in to what happened and in what order.
Blanchett's brilliant portrait of this lovely train wreck of a woman is surrounded by note-perfect performances. There's class conflict at the core of Jasmine and Ginger's relationship that Hawkins — a charmer in 2008's Happy Go Lucky — expresses with equal parts optimism and desperation. Clay is a minor revelation; who knew he could act or could get such a gig after The Adventures of Ford Fairlane?
A better standup comedian, Louis C.K., shines in a brief appearance as one of the men drawn by Jasmine's beauty and lulled by her lies. Another is Peter Sarsgaard as the man of substance Jasmine desires, yet her escalating psychosis may chase away.
Blue Jasmine is Allen's 44th movie in 47 years, an amazing run with storied highs and notorious lows along the way. This one ranks among his finest dramas, his best since Match Point. That tidy slice of noir topped my year-end list in 2005. Blue Jasmine may do the same this year.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.