Nearly 50 years into his film career, Woody Allen can still surprise. "Blue Jasmine" marks his first movie that could be called topical, even ripped from the headlines. It stars Cate Blanchett as Jasmine French, a high-society New Yorker devastated by the collapse of her husband's fraudulent financial empire.
You don't need to be a "Law & Order" fanatic to spot the parallels between Jasmine and Ruth Madoff, wife of the history-making Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff (here called Hal and played by a perfectly cast Alec Baldwin). Other similarities surface in the plot, but Allen is more interested in Jasmine's character. How he reveals her -- or rather, where he finds her -- is another of this film's surprises.
Jasmine is a classic Allen heroine, beautiful and neurotic, but with a difference. Though her dependence on Stoli and Xanax is played for laughs, Jasmine is flirting with genuine mental illness. She unloads on strangers ("Everything started to unravel so quickly," she tells two baffled children) and converses aloud with her vanished son (Alden Ehrenreich). Exiled from New York, she crashes in San Francisco with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is juggling various working-class males (Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale and Louis C.K., all very good). Jasmine, however, sees a potential lifeline in a well-to-do diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard).
Blanchett's Jasmine is painfully raw and fragile (and also very funny), yet it takes a while to realize that she is not only Ruth Madoff but Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." Allen occasionally reworks specific lines (Blanche's famous lament that money just "goes places" becomes Jasmine's "I splurge out of habit") and he casts Cannavale as an almost-Kowalski. Allen's central insight -- that Jasmine, or Ruth, is an archetype we've seen before -- is nothing short of brilliant.
One flaw is that Allen's San Francisco seems populated almost entirely by East Coasters. Cannavale plays a tuff-talkin' New Jersey type, while the Brooklyn-born Clay couldn't come from any Bay but Sheepshead. Still, nothing can take away from Blanchett's tour-de-force performance or Allen's compelling and unusually hard-hitting script. "Blue Jasmine" is another modern-day fable from a filmmaker who still has much to say.
PLOT A once-wealthy woman is brought low by her husband's financial fraud.
RATING PG-13 (language, sexual situations)
CAST Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale
BOTTOM LINE Allen's story of a fictitious Ruth Madoff figure works as both a what-if comedy and a penetrating psychological portrait. Major credit goes to Blanchett, raw and funny and astounding as ever.