Diane Keaton. Mia Farrow. Dianne Wiest. Scarlett Johansson. Penelope Cruz.
To the long list of actresses who've thrived in Woody Allen films, it's now time to add Cate Blanchett. And in big, capital letters, because her spectacularly wrenching performance in Allen's latest, "Blue Jasmine," lives up to every bit of hype you may have heard.
As his fans well know, Allen, 77, keeps up the incredible pace of about a film a year, and had lately been focusing on frothy comedic fare — the whimsical hit "Midnight in Paris," and the less successful "From Rome with Love."
"Blue Jasmine," surely one of his meatiest films in years, finds him in different territory, both geographically — we're back on U.S. shores — and emotionally, addressing serious issues like the Bernard Madoff financial scandal and its social ramifications.
It's also a fascinating character study of a woman trying to keep her head above water, financially and mentally, and as such, it's a clear homage to Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" and his tragically unstable Blanche DuBois. Some might quibble with how much Allen borrows, thematically, from that play. But in such expert and loving hands, do we really care?
And who better than Blanchett, who played such a searing Blanche onstage several years ago, to bring a 21st-century version of the character to life on the big screen?
Blanche, as reimagined here by Allen, is Jasmine, an upper-crust Manhattan socialite whose life has gone seriously wrong. Jasmine had been living, you see, on Park Avenue — and shopping on Madison — as the pampered wife of high-flying investment broker Hal (Alec Baldwin, perfect in this smarmy, Madoff-inspired role).
But it's all fallen apart, in spectacular Madoff style, and Jasmine is now flat broke. She flies to San Francisco — in first class and carrying Vuitton luggage, because some habits are hard to break — to move in with sister Ginger.
Ginger was adopted from a different set of biological parents, which helps to explain why she's everything Jasmine is not. A divorced mom of two boys, she works bagging groceries and dates an auto mechanic named Chili. The guy is gruff, temperamental, unsophisticated — Stanley Kowalski, anyone? — but he and Ginger sure have chemistry. British actress Sally Hawkins is hugely touching as Ginger, and the passionate Bobby Cannavale, with a cowlick — or is it a bang? — to remember, is spot-on as Chili — you can almost hear him yelling, "Ste-LLA!!" (Or, "Gin-GER!!")
Allen uses flashbacks to tell the story of Jasmine's past, while in the present, she tries desperately to get back on her feet, with a dream of becoming an interior decorator.
It's hard to say which is more fascinating, Jasmine's fictional journey or Blanchett's dramatic journey in the film, between the two Jasmines. Look at Jasmine in her glory: her skin virtually glows, her smile is glorious, and her ethereal, high-class beauty jumps off the screen.
But when Jasmine's down, Blanchett's eyes are red and puffy, her skin pale and blotchy. Her posture changes. Sweat stains soak the same silk dress that once looked so smashing.
As always, Allen draws strong supporting performances from all. The comic Andrew Dice Clay is an especially fun surprise as Ginger's embittered ex, and Louis C.K. is deviously sweet as Ginger's suitor. Peter Sarsgaard strikes the right tone as a wealthy diplomat who just might be Jasmine's savior.
Is "Blue Jasmine" an Occupy Wall Street-era morality tale, or just a deeply absorbing character study? Either way, Allen has given us a whole lot to chew on — and a flawed heroine we'll remember for a long time.
"Blue Jasmine," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "mature thematic material, language and sexual content." Running time: 98 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.