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A woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Cate Blanchett intoxicating in Woody Allen's latest

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In his writing process, Woody Allen is given to writing down concepts and ideas on a piece of paper. If an idea sticks, he may explore it in the form of a movie script.

One guesses the concept behind his new film Blue Jasmine read something like:

Mrs. Bernie Madoff as Blanche DuBois.

From that bizarre notion, a compelling drama arises. It helps immeasurably that Allen cast dramatic powerhouse Cate Blanchett in that potentially dangerous hybrid role. Since Blanchett has played faded southern belle Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire onstage, she presumably knows how to avoid camping up the character. (For the full campy Blanche, please see Allen himself in the role in a scene from his 1973 comedy Sleeper opposite Diane Keaton's Stanley Kowalski.)

Jasmine is a New York socialite brought low when her charming, Madoff-like husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is arrested for financial fraud on a massive scale. Destitute, abandoned by her circle of friends, and given to popping Xanax like Tic-Tacs, she flies to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a woman who already has her hands full as a single mom with two kids.

Ginger's boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) is suspicious. While residing in New York's upper crust, Jasmine either ignored her sister or treated her with a certain sneering repugnance. A flashback wherein Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) visit the Fifth Avenue abode of Hal and Jasmine proves Chili correct.

But Jasmine digs in and finds a job as a secretary for a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) smitten by her classy demeanour. Eventually Ginger grows susceptible to Jasmine's assertion that she can do better than settle for the passionate blue-collar lunk Chili and she tumbles into an affair with a sound engineer (Louis C.K.).

Jasmine herself strikes dating gold when she entrances a widowed ambassador (Peter Sarsgaard) looking for a woman of elegance and social graces to stay by his side when he makes a run for political office.

Taken on the whole, Allen's film presents a piquant contrast between Jasmine's realm of power and privilege -- characterized by dishonesty, greed and adultery -- and Ginger's working-class realm, characterized by care, honesty and rough-hewn love.

If you don't find yourself struck over the head by Allen's political proselytizing, it may have something to do with the particularly strong cast he has assembled here. Allen's dialogue can be clunky and overly formal in the wrong hands, but old pros like Baldwin can make it seem supple. Cannavale and Clay (of all people) prove downright adept at making the words ring true.

But this is ultimately Blanchett's movie and she dazzlingly bears the load of a character so steeped in a world of deception, she risks having no one left to lie to but herself.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2013 D5

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