She's come undone. The title of one of my favorite Wally Lamb novels about a woman over the edge kept running through my mind as I watched Woody Allen's new film "Blue Jasmine."
There's just no better way to put it. Jasmine, in such a paralyzing state of denial and played with such broken vulnerability by Cate Blanchett, is coming completely undone.
It is Allen's bleakest drama ever.
Jasmine's unraveling becomes the conduit for a stinging ironic jab at the Bernie Madoffs of the world and their particular brand of greed. Jasmine was married to one of them, and the question of how much she knew is significant.
Yet for all of "Blue Jasmine's" darkness, the movie is among the filmmaker's most emotionally affecting. Allen is surprisingly sensitive in exposing Jasmine, one of those affluent New York sophisticates so easy to dislike. Even the melodrama attached to her new struggles — a suddenly empty bank account, a mindless job, no closet space — realities that frame everyday life for most women, is subtly calibrated to allow us to feel for her. And occasionally laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Women and their neuroses have long been one of Allen's strong suits. The writer-director's juicy, complex roles have earned Oscars for a string of actresses: Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall," Dianne Wiest in "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Bullets Over Broadway," Penélope Cruz for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Even one of his lesser films, "Mighty Aphrodite," made Mira Sorvino an Oscar winner.
"Blue Jasmine" could well do the same for Blanchett.
As many indelible roles as the Aussie actress has already had in her career — Queen Elizabeth I, twice; Galadriel in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Hobbit"; the iconic Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator," which would win her an Oscar — the actress reaches new depths in portraying great weakness. For all that Jasmine has done, all the hurt for which she is responsible, we don't want her to break.
The whys of Jasmine's slow dissolve into delusion unfold over the course of the film, though there are clues from the start. The plane ride to her new life in San Francisco has her seatmate caught in the slipstream of Jasmine's memories. It helps set up many of the film's moral quandaries as well as the patter that is Jasmine's default for navigating sticky social situations. The truth and the lies so seamlessly blend that even she loses track.
The memories always get to a mention of "Blue Moon." The song was playing when she first met her handsome husband and the line "you saw me standing alone" gains poignancy as the film goes on. While the questions about her husband's crimes and misdemeanors gain intensity.
A pitch-perfect Alec Baldwin portrays the charismatic Hal, a successful investment broker with many indiscretions. He is the architect of her rise and the reason for her fall.
The film moves between Jasmine's various realities with a kind of natural ease, helped no doubt by the long tenure of the director's crew: production designer Santo Loquasto, editor Alisa Lepselter, costume designer Suzy Benzinger, casting directors Juliet Taylor and Patricia DiCerto, plus a relative newcomer, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who shot "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
Jasmine's idolized past feels both out of reach and untouchable. The elegant Manhattan apartment, the perfectly cushy beach house, the couple's spot as one of the elite in New York's high society. Even Hal's overachieving son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich), whom Jasmine raised as her own, has all the right Ivy League touches.
There are only hints of her recent past — a lost job in a high-end NYC shoe store, a fallout with Danny, the therapy, the pills, the breakdown. The present is a corner of her sister Ginger's (Sally Hawkins) cramped S.F. flat.
There are some unnecessary contrivances to explain the sisters' differences in looks and what life has handed them. But at heart, the relationship is fraught for all the typical reasons.
As to the future, at first Jasmine can't see one. That discontent brings some lighter moments. Her stint as a dentist's receptionist and her elaborate plans to become an interior designer echo Allen's distinctive comic voice.
That this is San Francisco is barely relevant. It feels a departure for a filmmaker for whom "place" is so often a defining factor. "Manhattan," "Midnight in Paris" and his last "To Rome With Love," to name a few.
There are larger and smaller forces at work. Though Jasmine's plight is in part due to the Wall Street collapse, her failing marriage is also at fault. Like so many high-end moneymen, Hal played a risky game on the personal front as well. An FBI investigation put him behind bars for mishandling other people's money. Jasmine levies the penalty for his other women.
Among Hal's victims were Ginger and her ex, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) — their small lottery winnings and their marriage quickly down the drain. Ginger's new love is Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a mechanic with an easy smile and a quick temper. Jasmine's distaste for the latest "loser" in her sister's life soon does its work. But Allen makes clear which of his savages are the noble ones.
I don't imagine the director has spent much time in the blue-collar world, but helped by excellent turns by Hawkins, Clay and Cannavale, he settles in nicely. A wonderfully testy exchange between the sisters over Jasmine's first-class ticket to San Francisco is a classic.
A cocktail party seems to promise a new life for both sisters. Ginger meets Al (Louis C.K.), a sweet-talking salesman. Jasmine meets a dashing young diplomat, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). And for a while, the clouds clear.
Allen has given us a protagonist driven by many of the same demons he's explored in other, earlier morality tales. In "Blue Jasmine," the fable is a twisted version of trickle-down economics restaged, reconsidered. Jasmine's excesses he may forgive, the end leaves room for debate. Wall Street's he does not.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, language and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark Theatre, West Los AngelesCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun