Cate Blanchett, possibly the planet’s greatest actress, has forever been lurking behind Meryl Streep’s throne, leaning on it, sitting on the edge with one arm around Meryl’s shoulder, posing for us all with that wicked smile. Now, with Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” she’s in Meryl’s lap and it looks crowded, so it’s time for Meryl to get up and sit in the audience. This is Cate’s year. This is her moment. This will be her night.
Welcome Jasmine, born Jeannette, getting out of a cab in San Francisco, with her five-piece Louis Vuitton luggage, treating her Mexican cabbie like her personal valet.
She finds herself lost in her sister’s world (they were adopted and mama loved Jeannette more: “she had better DNA”) Her eyes are full of terror and loss. Why does this sound so familiar?
Our Jasmine is a refugee from another world far away. In flashbacks, which Woody sprinkles every few minutes like servings on a tray, some in caviar, some in salami, we learn how she has come here.
Jasmine was married to Hal, a Manhattan hedge fund trader (a splendid and subdued Alec Baldwin) a thinner, handsomer Bernie Madoff. Together they traipsed across the finer linen of Europe, wined and dined with the kings and queens of finance and the arts, while all the while, Hal was spinning illegal deals like a summer spider. Then the crash came. Hal went to prison, where he hung himself in his cell. A traumatized Jasmine/Jeannette woke to find herself with her matched luggage, a handful of cash and her entire world chewed bare by the government’s ravenous beetles.
So here she is, where her sister Ginger (a great Sally Hawkins) lives a life so blue collar, it reflects San Francisco Bay.
We met Sally and her former husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay in a surprising new coat of paint) earlier on, when they visited Jasmine and Hal on a disastrous visit to New York to celebrate their $250,000 lottery win. Augie consults Hal. Hal takes Augie’s money to invest. You do the math.
Now, divorced from Augie, Ginger, as different from Jasmine as San Francisco is from Little Rock, Ark., is engaged to Chili, a tattooed mechanic with a bad haircut, who could never be played better by anyone other than the great Bobby Cannavale.
The crazy queen meets Stanley, I mean Chili, OMG … now we know where we are, this is Woody Allen’s love song to Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” cleverly, tastefully and respectfully done, and who else would you hire to play Blanche, but Cate who has done it on Broadway?
Of course, Jasmine/Blanche will clash with Chili/Stanley in a door breaking fight, and Ginger will try to please her sister by upgrading to a sound engineer (Louis C.K.)
With her diamonds gone and cash running out, Jasmine takes a course in computers and a job as a receptionist with a lecherous dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg, the impressive Arnie Rothstein on “Boardwalk Empire”). Imagine a frantic Blanche Dubois in scrubs, trying to answer phones and questions. (“Can you put someone on who speaks better English?”)
Woody gives his star enough verbal ammo to keep us breathless. When she babysits Ginger’s two chubby manic boys.
“Remember to tip big, boys,” and as she chugalugs Xanax, Prozac and Stoli martinis, she lectures the wide-eyed stunned kids “I tell you boys, there are only so many traumas you can withstand before you start screaming.”
Another chance to regain her socialite bearing pops up at a cocktail party, where the smooth, wealthy, diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard) woos her. Once again, our Jasmine reinvents herself with a bag of lies, hoping this one is her ticket back to a more comfortable delusion.
“Blue Jasmine” is Woody’s best movie since “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and “Manhattan,” and for my money, Blanchett is his greatest star. Her work here is blinding, stunning and magnificent. To watch her work, to see her stumble through the days of her life with mascara-stained eyes and trembling lips is a free acting lesson.
It’s a cliche now to mention Oscar, even though everyone has started, but the producers will know to get her a seat on the other end of Meryl, and one close to the staircase. “Blue Jasmine,” is an early Christmas gift. Take it. It’s yours.
J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.