Although he dutifully releases something like a film a year, and despite the reflexive gushing of the reviewers, Woody Allen has actually not produced a genuinely good movie in years, perhaps even decades. A good deal of his work ranges from abysmal — "Alice," "Mighty Aphrodite," "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" — to the merely silly, pretentious, or trivial — "Match Point," "To Rome With Love," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Now and then, amid the adolescent fantasy and sophomoric philosophizing, he makes a sort of half-good film, like "Deconstructing Harry," or "Midnight in Paris," that at least provides some entertainment value even for those viewers who are not devout Woodyites.
His newest movie, "Blue Jasmine," therefore comes as a refreshing surprise — it's actually rather different from much of his previous stuff and it's actually a solid piece of work. A director who often imitates others, including Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Lang, and Federico Fellini, in "Blue Jasmine" Allen employs a situation that initially resembles Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," and filters it through his own imagination, creating a sad, only occasionally comic story out of some familiar material.
The picture opens with a manically gabby, broke, and despondent Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), in flight from a completely dreadful situation in New York, seeking refuge in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). As a great many flashbacks reveal, Jasmine's husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), has committed a massive financial swindle in the Bernie Madoff class, resulting in a prison sentence for him and impoverishment for Jasmine, who loses, along with her jewels, furs, cars, and houses, a measure of her sanity.
In San Francisco Jasmine washes down handfuls of Xanax with quantities of vodka, alternately patronizing Ginger and attempting to break up her relationship with her boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Desperately unhappy, she finds herself remembering and of course regretting all the material goods, the fun, the prestige she's lost. She also wants to meet a suitable man, someone who can provide the luxury she enjoyed with the swindling Hal, who not only cheated his clients and partners but also cheated on her with a bevy of women, many of them her wealthy friends.
Although the movie displays some of the familiar Woody Allen humor — when in doubt, he always goes for the gag — it generally maintains a level of seriousness, while avoiding all that Allenesque preoccupation with what he regards as Big Ideas and Deep Thoughts. Instead of his usual concentration on a small, select, sophisticated group of New Yorkers dwelling in the general region of Central Park, for the first time in memory he actually confronts the fluid and complex question of social and economic class in America, with a sympathy he's never shown before. Jasmine's sister and her friends all work at jobs she could never imagine — bagging groceries in the supermarket, laying pipe, moving furniture — and all her interactions with them underline a multitude of differences between her previous and her present life.
As all the flashbacks suggest, the movie constantly emphasizes the presence of the past and the consequent problem of discarding it and moving forward; as it turns out, the successful characters are the ones who come to understand just how to deal with their own histories of mistakes, poor choices, and bad luck. While her sister accepts her situation, Jasmine struggles with a past that haunts her and positively wallows in regret.
The whole cast, even the supporting players, performs with exceptional competence. The greatest surprise may be the work of Andrew Dice Clay, the colossally foul-mouthed, profoundly unfunny stand-up comic, as Ginger's ex-husband Augie, who eventually teaches Jasmine a bitter lesson and strips her of her illusions. The picture, however, really belongs to Cate Blanchett, who appears in almost every scene and demonstrates an astonishing variety of emotions in word, gesture, and appearance. At times she looks stunning and sophisticated, at others, almost ugly in her confusion and vulnerability; she can be wickedly funny and obnoxiously superior, but she can also be completely distraught and unbalanced: "Blue Jasmine" constitutes a kind of tour de force for her, a polished and authentic vehicle she sustains with what may be the best performance of her career.