'Blue Jasmine' not always pretty, but still sweet

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 6:44 p.m.

Woody Allen's “Blue Jasmine” is Woody Allen's best film in years, an authentic-feeling deconstruction of a life. It isn't always easy to watch. It isn't exactly fun (though parts are funny). Cate Blanchett's performance sometimes overpowers the story. But it is an essential work in Allen's later canon.

He's still got it.

Blanchett plays Jasmine, whose name is really Jeanette, and whose name change only scratches the surface of her self-delusion. When we meet her, on a plane, she is jabbering about her former life to the patient woman seated beside her. She was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin, pitch-perfect), a high-flying financier in the Bernie Madoff mode. The money and the marriage are gone, and Jasmine is on the way to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in her small, modest apartment.

Jasmine is the type of person who, despite being flat-broke, flies first class. How, asks Ginger, who works as a cashier in a grocery store? Jasmine shrugs. “I just did,” she replies, as if it were a silly question, a denial of birthright.

The sisters couldn't be more different (and were, in fact, adopted). Her perch on high, at least from her perspective, is the perfect spot for Jasmine to criticize Ginger's life and, especially, her romances. Specifically, Jasmine spars with Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who calls her on her haughtiness at every turn, in ways that you imagine Ginger would like to but can't (or won't).

Jasmine drinks vodka and chews Xanax and frets about her new life. And she remembers. Oh, does she remember; much of the movie takes place in flashback. That's where we see Jasmine and Hal, hosting dinner parties in Manhattan or on the Hamptons, living in a world that exists beyond normal standards of wealth.

Hal plays a crucial role in breaking up Ginger's marriage to Augie (a surprisingly good Andrew Dice Clay). Ginger is sweet and forgiving. Augie is not, and a chance meeting with him late in the film will prove disastrous. And, probably, fitting.

At issue for Augie (and others) is how much Jasmine knew about Hal's duplicity.

Jasmine tries to get a life together, learning about computers so that she might get an online degree in interior design, taking a job as a receptionist in the office of a creepy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg). She even begins a new romance with a diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard), crafted on a new set of lies.

But it's all a kind of half-life, lived on the most jagged of edges. Jasmine is flat-broke. Ginger doesn't have much more, but her life is far richer. Ginger takes a shot at a new romance, with a seemingly nice stereo-installation man (Louis C.K.). Is she doing this because she wants to (Chili can be too intense) or because she wants to impress Jasmine?

There's class warfare here, and comedy and romance. But it's all built on falsehoods, which gives the film a thin sheen of discomfort throughout. It's dramatic tension of the best kind.

All of the performances are pretty great. Hawkins, for instance, never disappoints. But Blanchett is beyond that. She is sublime. She pulls off the neat trick of making her character truly loathsome, a sort of lizard of privilege, someone who we eventually care about. She will enrage you, and break your heart.

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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