MOVIES

Drama King and Queen

Woody Allen's talent for self-loathing and Cate Blanchett's vivid performance enliven this commentary on class and greed

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Director Woody Allen loves to showcase self-loathing characters as they prevent themselves from being happy. He's done it repeatedly in comedies ("Annie Hall") and dramas ("Match Point"), and now he features the theme in "Blue Jasmine," a strong drama highlighted by a wonderful performance from Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett ("The Aviator").

Jasmine (Blanchett) once was on top of the world. Married to financier Hal (Alec Baldwin) and living it up in New York City, there was nothing Jasmine didn't have or couldn't get. Too bad for her she looked the other way at any/all of Hal's indiscretions including, but not limited to, infidelity and fraud. Once Hal goes to jail, Jasmine loses everything, including, to use her whiny words, "all my own money."

Allen offers flashbacks of Jasmine and Hal together, and in the present shows her still feeling entitled to an upscale lifestyle. She even goes so far as to declare herself broke but still fly first class from New York to San Francisco to visit her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whose ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) lost $200,000 to Hal years earlier. Jasmine talks to herself, is opinionated about Ginger's lower-class status, and has no idea what to do with her life. All she knows is she will not settle for anything but being back on top of society.

For example, to make ends meet, she works as a dental assistant and is repulsed when the doctor (Michael Stuhlbarg) hits on her. This presents a telling virtue: Eager as she is to be with someone who has money and will provide for her, she's not willing to settle for an unattractive dentist whose financial ceiling is limited, even if he could offer stability. This is why handsome ambassador Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) seems a good match for her, though her self-destructive tendencies pose a problem.

As you might have inferred, Jasmine is delusional, paranoid, self-centered and judgmental. She's a typical Woody Allen lead character, right down to the wise remarks and self-loathing. To see this manifest in a woman, let alone one in the form of Blanchett, is a true sight to behold, as there's nary a sigh nor smile that feels out of place or unnatural. Aside from Diane Keaton's turn in "Annie Hall," this is the best female performance in any Allen film.

The beautiful and delusional Jasmine sees her contrast in the plain and grounded Ginger. But that doesn't mean Ginger isn't appealing to men; her boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) is obsessed with her, and when she meets Al (Louis C.K.), we understand why she would be tempted to stray. Hawkins' Ginger is aware of Jasmine's negative influence and succumbs to it anyway, in part because it provides excitement to her otherwise dull life and in part because, well, she's genuinely naïve and impressionable. Through it all, Hawkins is an endearing, sympathetic presence who lights up the screen with a smile that makes her instantly likable.

"Blue Jasmine" isn't consistently funny, nor does it need to be. This is an engaging film highlighted by an Oscar-worthy turn by Blanchett, whose height and physicality bring more to Jasmine's range of emotions than most other actresses could muster. It's a darn good performance in a darn good movie.

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