Are you still kicking yourself for missing Cate Blanchett in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Kennedy Center in 2009? Well, you’re in luck: Her Blanche DuBois is in full, addled force in “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen’s homage to San Francisco and the epic self-deceptions of Tennessee Williams’s battered heroine.
On second thought, to describe Blanchett as playing Blanche isn’t quite right: Rather, she’s channeling Blanche’s contemporary Upper East Side iteration, a sad, self-medicating sister under the skin whose rapidly fraying mental state is barely camouflaged under layers of Chanel, carefully coiffed hair and frequent applications of Stolichnaya.
As “Blue Jasmine” opens, Blanchett’s character, Jasmine, is flying to San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in order to escape troubles with her Wall Street executive husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), and begin a new life. Once in Ginger’s shabby apartment, Jasmine’s already fragile composure begins to crack, her compulsive small talk taking on even more desperate cadences, her memories of happier times — on Park Avenue, in the Hamptons, accepting diamond-encrusted baubles from her adoring husband — beginning ever more insistently to intrude. Following an ingenious structure devised by Allen at his most sharp and alert, “Blue Jasmine” turns out to be as familiar for its ripped-from-the-headlines topicality as it is for its magnolia-scented whiffs of Blanche’s beloved Belle Reve.
The beautiful dream, Jasmine recalls in flashbacks, had to do with Hal’s wealth, which she enjoyed while looking the other way as to its provenance (think Madoff). Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Ginger encourages her beautiful, polished sister to join her on depressingly down-market double dates and get a real job, as a dentist’s assistant. Pinched between the competing awful realities of her past and her present, Jasmine begins to resemble a sleek, warily cornered animal, Blanchett’s blade-like cheekbones and expressive mouth only adding to the feral terror she exudes.
“Blue Jasmine” co-stars Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K., but although Clay in particular is impressive and Peter Sarsgaard is note-perfect as Jasmine’s silky would-be savior, Blanchett owns this movie as thoroughly as her character owns her delusions. But are they? Is Jasmine running away from the truth or toward it? “Can you imagine me as an anthropologist?” she nervously asks her seatmate at the beginning of the movie. The intimation is that Jasmine, for all her willful blindness, might be more in tune with her own tribal rituals and realities than any of the blunt-edged working stiffs she’s fallen in with.
“Blue Jasmine” is not a particularly funny movie; Louis C.K. fans expecting his signature wit will be particularly disappointed by his character’s bland and predictable story arc. But there are moments of tough, lacerating humor, such as when Jasmine gives life advice to her two young nephews (“Tip big, boys”) and within seconds has descended into yet one more unhinged monologue (“There are only so many traumas a person can stand before they take to the streets screaming!”).
Some viewers will twig to the twist in Jasmine’s story early on, but no matter: By the time the roots of her neurosis come fully into focus, her descent has cast its own mesmerizing spell. Blanchett’s shattering performance is never less than fully inhabited, even when the persona she’s occupying seems to disintegrate before our eyes. It goes without saying that she’s without a trace of vanity in a production that calls on her to spend most of it with a red nose, mascara-smudged eyes and, finally, a delicate blush-colored blouse that’s conspicuously sodden in the underarms.
Such un-cosmeticized honesty feels like a jolt coming from Allen, who’s lately been more interested in the adventures of attractive American ex-pats abroad and time-traveling fantasies than raw naturalism. To say that “Blue Jasmine” marks some kind of return to “serious” form is unforgivably condescending, because his work has been so remarkably diverse and entertaining, even with one or two misfires.
Still, this one feels different: Allen has made a movie that is observant and pleasurable to look at and superbly crafted, which is his wont. But he seems to have shifted his gaze from the hermetic, cosmopolitan world he has been occupying — whether in London or Spain or France or Italy — and found something more grounded and grave. (Can you imagine him as an anthropologist?)
“Blue Jasmine” may not be a comeback in any aesthetic or professional sense, but it nevertheless feels like Allen has come back: to the psychic space and collective anxieties of the country of his birth and a real world that, for a while there, he seemed to have left behind.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material, profanity and sexual content.