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'Blue Jasmine' review: Woody plays nicer

*** (out of four)

Recently, the flavor of Woody Allen's work has had all the sweetness of a black coffee martini. 2011's nostalgic "Midnight in Paris" turned borderline evil in the bitter, unwatchable scenes involving Rachel McAdams' excruciating character; 2012's "To Rome with Love" embraced infidelity and didn't give a hoot about its female characters.

In the writer-director's likably sad "Blue Jasmine," Allen flips the script, focusing his story on women and noting the folly of anyone who ruins a good thing in an effort to trade up. For the time being, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has had to trade down: After years of the good life with her smooth-talking husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), his arrest and exposure as a thieving sleazeball force selfish Jasmine (real name: Jeannette) to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whom Jasmine formerly could barely tolerate. This delays Ginger's plan to co-habitate with her boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a blue-collar schmo Jasmine can't stand. She's condescension personified.

Of course, Allen himself is the master of inconsistency. He's been brilliant, and he's been terrible. With "Blue Jasmine" he's heavily indebted to "A Streetcar Named Desire," but he's also elicited universally excellent performances, with key supporting turns from Louis C.K., Peter Sarsgaard and even Andrew "Dice" Clay.

Blanchett's incredible, never allowing Jasmine to become a parody. She's the center of a semi-tragic character study about phoniness and deluded personal fantasies. "There's only so many traumas a person can stand before you take to the streets and start screaming," Jasmine says, oblivious to differing definitions of traumas and abilities to take accountability. She's the sort that has no money but flies first class out of habit, and would rather pay for Ginger's hotel bill than let her stay over -- until Jasmine needs help herself.

Allen's far too direct in spelling out his themes and opinions, and the movie's never more than a little funny. While I can't say I ever expected anyone to use the Dice man and a former "Bachelorette" (Ali Fedotowsky) in a movie I enjoyed, some of the characters in "Blue Jasmine" know how to swallow their pride. And so do I.

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