She walks, talks and looks money, and behaves as if she still had it. Didn’t she fly first-class from New York City to San Francisco? Yet Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is broke. Her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a financial wizard who tumbled into Bernie Madoff ignominy, had cheated his investors with some sleazy pyramid schemes and his wife with every other female in sight. Now she must take refuge with her Bay Area sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), for she has lost her husband, her home and her standing. All that remains is the upper-class fiction — Jasmine — that the college girl named Jeanette created, decades ago, to impress Hal. She hangs on to that persona from force of habit, and because it’s all she knows.
In a productive career as writer-director that now numbers 44 feature films in 44 years, Woody Allen has made comedies (the early, funny ones) and many other movies which, though they stint on the old Woody wit, take a light or satiric look at modern life and romance. Blue Jasmine is the 77-year-old auteur’s first flat-out non-comedy in a quarter century — since Another Woman and September in the late ’80s, and back to Interiors in 1978. Like those more somber studies, this is a portrait of a woman in extremis. But a view from afar: Allen observes Jasmine’s allure and disease without penetrating her soul. That makes for a movie that is both intimate and disinterested, as if Jasmine were a flailing insect in a barren terrarium.
(READ: Everything else Corliss had to say about Blue Jasmine in his TIME magazine story)
We can easily locate Jasmine’s dramatic kin outside the Allen canon. Her extravagant airs, and her flight from scandal to the working-class home of her sister, connect her to Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (which Blanchett played triumphantly on stage). Jasmine’s teetering equilibrium makes her a cousin to Gena Rowlands’ Mabel in the 1974 John Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence. Jasmine, not quite as far into madness as Mabel was, remains under the crippling influence of her own legend; she can adjust neither to the cramped quarters of Ginger’s apartment nor to the lumpen bravado of Ginger’s ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and his pals. She has the displaced affect of someone who thought she was going to the Hamptons and wound up in the projects.
Allen sometimes shares her disorientation of time and place. He sets his film in a mythical Manhattan where Brooklyn is still a borough to be sneered at (Jasmine has to move there after Hal’s disgrace), and an anachronistic San Francisco where virtually all the men at a Sunday-afternoon mixer are outfitted in jackets and ties. It’s clear we are to take indulgent consideration of Augie and his even less couth pal Eddie (Max Casella), who sees Jasmine as his next erotic triumph; yet their abrasive interaction is not much more than a series of upper-class vs. no-class clichés.
(READ: the 1979 and 1992 cover stories on Woody Allen by subscribing to TIME)
Jasmine must fend off another loser — the dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) who briefly employs her and makes a clumsily predatory play for her — before she gets a last chance with the genial, wealthy Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a dreamboat who has fallen in love with the image Jasmine has created and reassembled for him. His big challenge will be to embrace the real Jeanette with equal fervor.
If the film has a vital, complex character, that would be Ginger. As played by Hawkins, who rebottles the fizz she brought to Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, Ginger accepts her romantic and economic hard knocks with a smile. This congenital optimist does the best with the scraps life offers her: a sister she has little in common with and, cross your fingers, a kindly new beau, Al (Louis C.K.). Her affair with Al summons Blue Jasmine’s most plausible, affecting scenes.
(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of Happy-Go-Lucky)
Hawkins might be a contemporary version of the female characters from classic Allen films. Diane Keaton was the “Woody woman” of the ’70s, and Mia Farrow of the ’80s. Keaton was blithe and flighty, Farrow more fragile and searching. Both actresses, though, had an appeal that anchored the audience’s sympathy. Without building a grand theory on Allen’s personal relationships with Keaton and Farrow, we can still detect a fondness and protectiveness in his creation of characters for them.
He has a sterner take on Jasmine, as does Blanchett, an ideal interpreter of a once-powerful woman careering into ruin. “Sympathy doesn’t really come into it,” she told Lily Rothman for a TIME interview. “I think it’s important — and more interesting, frankly — to keep a distance from the part that you’re playing. So that you can, in Jasmine’s case, present the delusion and the evasion without any judgment. If you empathize with someone you can be at arm’s length but still compassionate.”
(READ: Lily Rothman’s interview with Cate Blanchett on Blue Jasmine)
So empathy, no. Sympathy, no. Compassion, at arm’s length. I’d guess that what Allen feels for Jasmine is pity — for her fall from a great height, and her inability to regain her footing at ground level. I also suspect he’s holding Jasmine at least partly responsible for the crimes and misdemeanors of the moneyed class in his hometown. She didn’t create the financial bubble but she soared on it, profited from it, merged its fantasy of wealth and éclat with hers.
Now it’s payback time for a Blanche DuBois with no tragic grandeur, a Mabel with no loving husband to mourn her decay. The portrait is as unforgiving as one by Francis Bacon. In Woody Allen’s return to his blue period, he’s painting in dark, corrosive shades.