Woman on the Verge of Another Nervous Breakdown

Jasmine French, an attractive and pretentious middle-aged woman with a taste for Hermes accessories,  Chanel jackets and Louis Vuitton luggage, is down on her luck. Her husband, Hal, a shady businessman in the mould of Bernard Madoff, is serving a prison sentence for fraud and who knows what else. The federal government has seized their assets. Their son, a former Harvard student, has vanished. Clearly, Jasmine is in dire straits.

Dead broke and desperate, but  ready to start a new life out west, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a resident of New York City, flies to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a single mother who, in terms of looks, class and refinement, is as different from her as Earth is from Mars. Although Jasmine can barely make ends meet, she purchased a first-class airplane ticket nonetheless. “I splurge out of habit,” she confesses in an admission of weakness.

Woody Allen’s new movie, Blue Jasmine, unfolds as Jasmine, a former socialite, tries to reinvent herself in the aftermath of a scandal that has gutted her wealth and self-confidence. Although it reaches moments of levity, in true Allen fashion, his latest film is more tragedy than comedy, a smart character study of a woman who can’t quite accept her precipitous fall from grace.

In a bravura performance tinged with subtlety and pathos, Blanchett, a British actor whose American accent is uncannily accurate, bores deeply into Jasmine’s mind and soul, portraying her as a broken vessel seemingly immune to repair. Blanchett is splendid from the moment the camera first pans on her on the San Francisco-bound flight as she bombards a fellow passenger with a narcissistic barrage of autobiography. She is oblivious to the fact that her listener is bored with her narrative.

But she is particularly great in two signature scenes, one at the beginning and the other toward the denouement. In the first, she meets Ginger’s astute working-class boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and his equally rough-hewn male friend, and fidgets nervously at the thought of having to consort with such characters. They are beneath her, and she feels utterly humiliated in their presence. Yet she blurts out, “I just don’t know what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” In the second scene, during which her dignity is also battered,  Hal (Alec Baldwin), a serial philanderer, grudgingly admits he is having an affair with a young French au pair and plans to leave Jasmine for her.

Both Hal and Jasmine are certified snobs. In a flashback, one of many weaved seamlessly into Allen’s plausible and fast-moving screenplay, Ginger and her first husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), visit their fancy Park Avenue apartment, and a viewer can immediately discern they are unwelcome guests. Hal rolls his eyes, while Jasmine informs the pair that they have little time to show them around the city. At Jasmine’s urging, they invest their lottery winnings in what turns out to be a disastrous real estate scheme.

Reliant on Ginger after her moneyed world collapses, Jasmine plots a comeback. She takes a computer course, but dreams of being an interior decorator. After all, the lady has good taste in clothes and furniture. In the meantime, she works as a receptionist for a creepy dentist, who tries to take advantage of her.

Discombobulated by the depths to which she has sunk, Jasmine pops pills to head off another nervous breakdown. Her first one occurred after Hal was arrested and his empire evaporated. Despite her parlous state, Jasmine continues to behave condescendingly toward Ginger, a bagger in a food store, and her friends. She bites the hand that houses her.

Just when Jasmine is at her wit’s end, she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), an  American diplomat. Rich and self-confident, he drives a gold BMW, a car whose color symbolizes the alluring golden life that beckons tantalizingly if she plays her cards right. Passing herself off as an  interior decorator and displaying her feminine charms, he grows infatuated with her.

Jasmine’s false claim dovetails with Dwight’s desire to decorate his newly-purchased ocean-side home. Jasmine’s lie about her professional credentials, however foolish and short-sighted, pales into insignificance when compared to other egregious lies she tells him. Of course, Jasmine’s propensity to “dress up a few facts” backfires.

Blanchett insinuates herself into Jasmine’s skin effortlessly. But she is not the only member of the cast who shines. Hawkins, gawky and genuine, is picture perfect as her sister, while Cannavale and Clay, the personification of regular all-American Joes, are convincing in their respective roles. Baldwin’s portrayal as a villain is bang on.

Blue Jasmine, coming on the heels of a succession of critically acclaimed Allen films, notably Match Point and Midnight in Paris, is easily one of his best. And thanks to Blanchett’s stellar performance, it will probably endure long after Allen’s departure from this vale of tears.