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Blue Jasmine Blue Jasmine

'Blue Jasmine' compelling, surprisingly sad

Sometimes, even the seemingly predictable can surprise us.

Woody Allen has been making movies for what seems like an eternity; the truth is that in Hollywood terms, he has been. His directorial debut was 'What's Up, Tiger Lily?' back in 1966. Take a moment and really think about that; Woody Allen has been making movies for almost 60 years. The last year in which he didn't have a feature release was back in 1981. For a long while, it seemed that many critics felt the veteran filmmaker had lost his fastball.

And yet, in defiance of the odds, after a decade-plus of mostly forgettable competence, Allen has seen a significant creative surge in the past couple of years. It was easy to think that Allen's halcyon days were long done, his presence in the Cineplex more an homage to past greatness than any comment on current quality.

But then you get something like 'Blue Jasmine' and you're reminded of just how good he can be.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett; 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey') is heading to San Francisco to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins; 'Great Expectations'). Her previous New York City life of privilege has dissipated; it turns out that her big-shot businessman husband Hal (Alec Baldwin; TV's '30 Rock') was engaged in some less-than-legal dealings and got himself indicted, leaving her with nothing.

So Jasmine tries to reinvent her life in a new place, but she's stuck with a double whammy of no marketable skills and emotional issues springing from the abrupt shift in her situation. She finds herself embroiled in her sister's life, both in terms of Ginger's former husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay; TV's 'Entourage') and her current beau Chili (Bobby Cannavale; 'Parker'). There's also a good deal of denial, surfacing during her dealings with both her stepson Danny (Alden Ehrenreich; 'Beautiful Creatures') and potential suitor Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard; 'Lovelace').

Through it all, Jasmine struggles to pull the pieces back together, but her inability to escape the clutches of the past proves to be a major impedance to the possibility of moving forward.

'Blue Jasmine' is permeated throughout with a darker tone than one typically expects from Woody Allen. That's not to say that the filmmaker hasn't worked with those colors before, but there's a bleakness here that feels much rawer than his typical fare.

The film is elevated by a collection of performances that is absolutely stellar. Leading the way is Blanchett, whose portrayal of Jasmine is an absolute tour de force. The actress lays herself bare, offering layer upon layer of complexity and nuance to this lost, lonely, broken woman. She wields Jasmine's unlikeable aspects as a weapon, remaining uncompromisingly unsympathetic. Expect her to receive plaudits come awards season.

But she's not alone. Hawkins makes Ginger into the one character an audience can feel good about liking, offering keen insight on the relationship between the two very different sisters. Cannavale is brimming with coarse charisma as Chili, bursting forth with blue-collar energy. Baldwin appearing entirely in flashback is spot-on as the wealthy schemer Hal, serving as the perfect guide to Jasmine's previous life in moments good, bad and ugly.

Two stand-up comedians take quality turns as well. Louis C.K. (TV's 'Louie') does good work in a couple of scenes as a possible paramour for Ginger. But the biggest surprise of all might be the work of Andrew Dice Clay; his broke and embittered Augie is painfully real. It's as if the fallen fortunes of the actor are reflected in the character and it's almost shockingly engaging.

It seems odd to walk out of a Woody Allen movie in silent contemplation, but that's the sort of gut-punch that 'Blue Jasmine' hits you with. While there are some parts that feel overwrought and a bit too self-pitying, the across-the-board excellence of the performances allow most of the flaws if not all of them to be forgiven.

[4 out of 5]

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