Mental Illness is something we now think of as a product of brain chemistry, not personality. But have we tilted almost too far in that direction? Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's powerful and enthralling new movie, is about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and there's something cathartic about a contemporary film that's willing to explore madness as an expression of who a person really is. Blue Jasmine is about what happens when one lost soul meets the cruel real world.
The heroine, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), is doing her best to keep it together, but there are moments when she talks to herself on the street, and between fits of hysteria she has a way of staring into space as though she were watching a television in her brain. With no money, no skills, and nowhere else to go, she shows up at the apartment of her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a grocery cashier in San Francisco, and attempts to put a good face on things. But Jasmine's demeanor, kicked up by the Stoli vodka she guzzles, is eccentric bordering on unstable, and there's a design to the way she's losing it.
The movie keeps jumping back to the life Jasmine was leading when she was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a wealthy, soft-voiced wheeler-dealer who is not what he appears to be. Surrounded by luxury and ''beautiful'' people, Jasmine is in her element: posh and stylish, presiding with sexy confidence over dinner parties and summer weekends in Southampton. In the flashbacks (which are half the movie), she's living a mirage, but it's a dream she's chosen to believe in. When it all comes crashing down, she hates what reality has become, so she simply runs away from it. Even a dashing diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard) who could save her is blindsided by her lies.
Blue Jasmine has a few uneasy laughs, but it's a straight-up Woody Allen drama, and his most compelling film since Match Point (2005). Jasmine settles into her existence in Ginger's scruffy pad, where she spars with Ginger's boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a sweet-natured mechanic who enjoys teasing her. She loves to put on airs, and he loves to slice through them. We start to realize that the film is Allen's gloss on A Streetcar Named Desire, with Jasmine as a Blanche DuBois of the economic-meltdown era and Chili as a modern grease-monkey version of Stanley Kowalski which sounds like a labored idea. Yet the movie tones down the primal sexual combat that was at the heart of Tennessee Williams' play, and Allen, pushing the Blanche figure front and center, gives the action a grippingly contemporary resonance and flow.
Blanchett, her eyes shining, makes Jasmine at once ardent, touching, off-putting, and cracked in her grand delusions. It's an awesome mood ring of a performance, with an emotional fusion of pleasure and despair that's true to the lyrical tragedy of the original Blanche. As long as she's in her gilded cage, Jasmine is a woman of leisure who blinds herself to what's going on. But once she's tossed out of the cage, she has nothing, which is why her defining feature is her snobbery: When she talks about how she can't imagine doing ''menial'' labor, it sounds haughty as hell, but when she lands work as a dentist's assistant, shuffling papers, Blanchett truly makes you feel how the job, at least in her mind, is hell.
The movie is rich with class tension, and if Allen nails the moods of the wealthy, he also gets surprising, dynamic performances from Hawkins, Cannavale, and Andrew Dice Clay as the folks who have no money but may have a fuller sense of what life is. Jasmine tries to rise above them, but she's done in, over and over, by the illusions she thinks she can fool others with, just as she fools herself. The greatness of Blanchett's acting is that she shows you how madness doesn't just destroy Jasmine but, in some terrible way, fulfills her destiny. A