Jasmine thinks she needs a friend, but what she needs is a therapist. Whether she’s talking to her new love or a stranger, she’s constantly evaluating her life, and she’s delusional. This type of narcissism is not new to Woody Allen – as a rule, his characters are existentially neurotic – but there’s usually something likable about them, too. This is not the case with Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett. The actress gives one of the best performances of the year, and maybe the best of her career. There are moments of levity in Blue Jasmine, Allen’s first dramatic film since 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, but this is mostly a dive into misery. It is an entertaining, important moviebecause of the performances, and how Allen considers income inequality.

Allen cuts between two periods in Jasmine’s life. A few years ago, she was fabulously wealthy.  Her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was making money hand over fist, and he was always happy to help friends with a new investment deal. Hal even offered to work with Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). Life was good, and the possibilities were endless.

Fast forward to the present, and Jasmine is destitute. She flies from New York to San Francisco, where the now-divorced Ginger lives, out of sheer desperation. It turns out that Hal was Jack Abramoff-style swindler, and the government took all his stolen money. Despite the sudden shift in economic status, Jasmine still has the same personality of an uptight, ultra-wealthy New Yorker. She’s a total snob about Ginger’s living conditions, and disapproves of her boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Life in San Francisco proves difficult for Jasmine – she eventually gets a job at a dentist’s office – but there is potential when she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) at a party. At the same party, Ginger meets Al (Louis CK) and he seems like a nice reprieve from Chili’s aggressive personality. Self-deception hides the ugly truth about this new romance, but only for so long.

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Allen’s laid-back style is a good match for this material because a lot of it is like watching a car wreck. The cinematography is a softly inviting, and he always keeps a measured distance from his characters, so it’s a little easier to watch them careen from cognitive dissonance to misery. Jasmine is not a distress in distress, but a piece of work, if you know what I mean. There’s a hint of condescension in everything she says to Ginger, and this is especially true when they live together; Jasmine resents the fact she needs her. Sometimes her lies are so audacious they’re funny: with Dwight, she says she’s a widow and her husband was a surgeon (we learn Hal commits suicide off-screen). She falls in with Dwight precisely because she knows how to act like a rich wife. Their whirlwind romance ends as it must, and neither Allen nor Blanchett hold back her defeated anger.

For all its focus on wealth how it inspires superiority, Blue Jasmine is more interesting when it deals with the lower middle class. This is familiar territory for Allen (a lot of his characters are social climbers), and here he adds another layer of conflict. Augie has a point when he argues that Jasmine does not deserve a second chance. Clay, who is not exactly known for his subtlety, is pitch-perfect as a tough guy who has wisdom when it matters. In some ways, CK is Clay’s opposite. He’s pleasant and full of potential, but his transition to just another guy is heartbreaking because Ginger, unlike Jasmine, wears her heart on her sleeve. Hawkins’ character is one of the few who find happiness, and it’s rewarding because she downplays against Blanchett’s over-the-top disaster of a performance.

It is difficult to discuss Blue Jasmine without making it sound depressing. Few of the characters are sympathetic, and many of them end worse off from where they started. This drama is watchable because Allen has such a natural instinct for these characters, and who they are. Like Clay and CK, each major character has an opposite, and Allen creates fascinating conflicts for them, which play out naturally. Some scenes are mirror images of each other, whether they pair one character or repeat the same conflict with different people. These parallels reach their climax in the final scene, shortly after we learn an important secret about Jasmine. Thanks to Allen’s clear script, it is easy to understand why Jasmine is who she is. It’s a testament to Blanchett’s acting that we almost care about her, too. Almost.

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