The acting is everything in "Blue Jasmine," though Cate Blanchett and company wouldn't have anything to act without writer-director Woody Allen's flagrant revision of "A Streetcar Named Desire." "Best-since" phrases have been flying since Allen's seriocomic exercise opened in New York and Los Angeles: best since "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," best since "Match Point," best since "Crimes and Misdemeanors" a generation ago, even. Well. Certainly it's his best since "Midnight in Paris," two movies ago, which is to say it's better than "To Rome With Love."
Relocating the Tennessee Williams action from New Orleans to San Francisco, Allen offers a portrait in how the mighty have fallen on hard times, hanging his tale on a Park Avenue socialite, disgraced and financially leveled by her morally challenged entrepreneur husband (Alec Bladwin). The protagonist, Jasmine (Blanchett), dissolves into a puddle of drink, pills and despair, and moves in with her working-class sister (Sally Hawkins) across the country.
Blanchett vibrates with a tremulous hum of anxiety throughout "Blue Jasmine," valiantly making sense of Allen's comic and dramatic strains. The gag at the top of the picture, revealing Jasmine on a cross-country flight, spilling her guts out to a stranger, is meant to be funny but not rimshot-funny; still, with Jasmine (born Jeanette) already muttering and delusional, you wonder if this performance and the film itself have anywhere to go for an hour and a half. The answer is a qualified yes. Each character, each scene in "Blue Jasmine" feels as if it comes from some other movie or play, whether Allen's or Tennessee Williams'. Yet you stick with the film, for Blanchett, and for some shrewdly cast supporting turns, notably that of Andrew Dice Clay, forcefully insinuating as the ex-husband of Jasmine's sister, whose lottery winnings were turned into a pile of nothing by the Baldwin character's chicanery.
Like Blanche DuBois in "Streetcar," whom Allen sent up once upon a time in "Sleeper," Jasmine has been yanked out of her comfort zone by harsh circumstance. The movie jumps back and forth in time, a present-day indignity or comment triggering another dive back into Jasmine's old life. The contrasts in class and wealth brake right at the edge of parody; Jasmine meets a swank diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard) and pins her hopes on his romantic interest, lying all the way. Meantime sister Ginger cheats on her latest boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) with a sweeter variation on her usual guys, a sound man played with pleasing understatement by Louis C.K. It's heartening to see Allen using familiar faces for something unexpected, and it is Clay who gets the key speech near the end, reminding the audience that for every Bernie Madoff wolf, a lot of forlorn sheep are left behind.
Allen has played many of these class distinctions and character types for straight laughs in the past; in "Blue Jasmine" he's after an elusive combination of pathos and amused irony. Blanchett knows this territory well; her celebrated stage turn as Blanche in "Streetcar" (opposite Joel Edgerton's Stanley) came to New York a few years ago, and one wonders if Allen saw it, got the idea for his own "Streetcar" and took it from there. Some scenes in "Blue Jasmine" simply do not square with the rest of the picture, even if they're momentarily effective, such as Jasmine's haughty introduction to the world of the working poor. She becomes a receptionist in a dentist's office (Michael Stuhlbarg plays the smitten employer, going on about bridgework). "Dr. Flicker, where is all this talk leading?" Blanchett asks at one point. By the time we hear about Jasmine's electroshock therapy, the "Streetcar"-ness of Allen's creation has become complete.
The derivative nature of the setup won't matter to a lot of people; Blanchett and her co-stars will be enough. Maybe I've simply seen one too many "Streetcars" to give Allen's picture a fair shake. We all bring our viewing experiences to every new movie we see. The recent Allen films I like — "Match Point," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (which ends on a terrific, ambiguous note), "Midnight in Paris" — have had their moments that simply do not wash, or that betray a casual tourist's eye at best for the global capitals in which they were photographed. The same can be said of "Blue Jasmine," though Allen and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (who shot "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") wisely steer clear of the most of the Top 10 Bay Area snapshot attractions.
The reason we keep coming back to Allen, through good films, bad ones and worthy in-betweens, I think, has to do with a mixture of nostalgia and the very real payoffs an uneven picture like "Blue Jasmine" provides, and especially provides its actresses. As written, Jasmine is little more than an artful copy of an archetype. As brought to nerve-racked life by Blanchett, it's still that, but with an edge recalling Judy Davis in "Husbands and Wives." Plenty of fine actresses have delighted in Allen's snappish comic rhythms, which the writer never really loses, even in drama. Or in drama borrowed from Tennessee Williams. He's hardly alone, but the man behind "Blue Jasmine" has always relied on the kindness of inspirations, be they Shakespeare, Chekhov, Bergman or Woody Allen.
'Blue Jasmine' - 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, language and sexual content)
Running time: 1:38