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Blanchett is breathtaking in Allen’s latest

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    Sony Pictures Classics From "Annie Hall" to "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and now to "Blue Jasmine," Woody Allen remains inspired by actresses and the roles he writes for them. Cate Blanchett, above, in Allen's "Blue Jasmine."
    Woody Allen’s beautifully formed film benefits from Cate Blanchett’s stellar performance.

"Blue Jasmine" represents another leap forward for Woody Allen. This would hardly seem possible. He has been making movies for more than four decades and is responsible for more classics than any other writer-director in history, with the exception of his idol, Ingmar Bergman. But in its tonal range and in the depth of its lead character, "Blue Jasmine" is something new.

When we talk about tone in movies, we’re talking about the breadth of elements that can be shown within a story without jarring the established reality. Life itself has no tone — life is big enough for everything. But a work of art is limited. Constraints are put in place, so that soon it’s understood, by the viewer, that certain kinds of things fit, and others don’t.

Rated: PG-13
Opens today

The beauty of "Blue Jasmine" is that, tonally, it’s almost as big as life. Allen harmonizes what is essentially a deadly serious story with the ever-present possibility of humor, without diminishing the truth or effectiveness of either. And he accomplishes this with such assurance, fluidity and seamlessness that we barely notice the virtuosity at work.

When we first meet Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), she is on an airplane gabbing away at her captive seat partner (Joy Carlin), and the situation is comical. Here is a clueless woman, but elegant and clearly well-off, and the expectation — born of having seen other Allen movies — is that we’re going to be watching Jasmine the way we watched, say, Penelope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," from an appreciative distance. We don’t expect to be plunged directly into the center of this woman’s pain.

But soon we are, and this is what makes Jasmine different from Allen’s other heroines. Though he has been rightly praised for writing strong women’s roles, his women are generally seen from a man’s perspective — albeit a man who is brilliant, sympathetic and observant. Jasmine is something else. She is someone we discover from the inside, and she is of epic scale, a creation worthy of a great writer. She is Woody Allen’s Blanche DuBois.

As we soon see, Jasmine is in trouble. Her husband, a New York financier, was this movie’s equivalent of Bernard Madoff. Now the boats, the cars, the houses and the jewelry are gone, and Jasmine has fled New York for San Francisco, where she is to stay with her working-class sister (Sally Hawkins) until she gets on her feet. In the meantime, she is drinking heavily, self-medicating with pills and still can’t shake a belief in her own entitlement.

"Blue Jasmine" alternates the present-day scenes with scenes of Jasmine’s previous life of splendor, a splendor leavened only by a slight suspicion of something shady behind all the wealth. Jasmine didn’t deserve to live the way as she did, but her fall from grace is nonetheless hard, and to see her on a double date with her sister’s uncouth friends is to root for her to find her way back to some kind of prosperity.

Hawkins plays the sister with sweetness and forbearance — she is used to deferring to Jasmine and still does, reflexively. Those who don’t remember Andrew Dice Clay as a fine actor will greet his performance here as a revelation — he plays Jasmine’s former brother-in-law and carries off one of the movie’s pivotal scenes. And who could be better as an oily financier than Alec Baldwin, with his cold eyes and breezy charm?

But when we’re talking about "Blue Jasmine," we’re really talking about Blanchett, who — and this is no exaggeration — gives one of the greatest screen performances of the past 10 years. To say that she is Oscar-worthy would not do her justice, not when we remember what actually wins Oscars. Blanchett’s performance is one for the books.

In terms of emotion, it’s best to keep in mind that Jasmine’s story, though told out of sequence, has a sequence nonetheless, one inhabited by Blanchett with preternatural intuition and nuance. We see that Jasmine was weak to begin with. And later, we see the guilt, the disgrace, the pain, the self-delusion, not as emotions in sequence, but as elements ever-present and threatening to bubble to the surface, threatening the magnificent facade. The facade itself is a splendid creation, paper-thin and yet seductive, the manners and references suggestive of all the good things money can buy — and has bought.

Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine" is beyond brilliant, beyond analysis. This is jaw-dropping work, what we go to the movies hoping to see, and we do. Every few years.

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