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Woody Allen's highly anticipated 'Blue Jasmine' has less San Francisco in it than expected — but it's still his best film in years

All that glitters: Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett

FILM The good news about Blue Jasmine isn't that it's set in San Francisco — more on that later — but that it's Woody Allen's best movie in years. Although some familiar characteristics are duly present, it's not quite like anything he's done before, and carries its essentially dramatic weight more effectively than he's managed in at least a couple decades. Yes, Match Point (2005) and Cassandra's Dream (2007) were "serious" too, but they were basically thrillers (one pretty good, one awful) that, whatever their other qualities, demonstrated that he doesn't have much feel for suspense.

Blue Jasmine is, in a very different way, full of tension — because its protagonist is uncomfortable in almost any situation, often teetering on the edge of a full-on anxiety attack. Yet these are recent developments. Not long ago Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) was the quintessential Manhattan society hostess, with homes hither and thither (including the Hamptons, naturally), ever-so-busy planning dinner parties, sitting on charity boards, and going to Pilates class. Her immaculately put-together elegance isn't Brahmin-bred: a natural upscaler, she remade herself from humble roots to suit the role of picture-perfect wife to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a master of the universe type whose questionably legal investment schemes and not-particularly-discreet infidelities she turns a willful blind eye toward. (It helps that he's a really, really good liar.)

But at the start here, that glittering bubble of money and privilege has burst — exactly how revealed in flashbacks that spring surprises up to the script's end — with the result that marriage and material comfort are now gone. Penniless, fleeing her husband's public disgrace (he seems Allen's belated commentary on the bankster-induced crash of '08), Jasmine has crawled to the West Coast to "start over" in the sole place available where she won't be mortified by the pity of erstwhile society friends. That would be the SF apartment of Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a fellow adoptive sister who was always looked down on by comparison to pretty, popular, clever Jasmine.

Theirs is an uneasy alliance — arguably the most discomfiting flashback is to Ginger's Manhattan visit with now ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), a mini-festival of thinly veiled class snobbery. Ginger has good reason to resent her big sis, whose attempted financial assistance via slippery Hal actually wound up destroying the visitors' marriage. (Allen's casting can sometimes seem stunt-like and overdependent on "who's hot now." Yet its top to-bottom brilliance here is personified by comedian Clay's excellence in a small but important role.) Still, she's too big-hearted to say no.

Ergo, Jasmine arrives at the flat Ginger shares with her two young sons — nose immediately curling at its IKEA/thrift-shop modesty and the boys' noisy energy — with no clear idea what she'll do, or how she'll support herself. She has no marketable skills, and god forbid she'd take something as lowly as Ginger's supermarket-cashier job. Yet she continues to judge everything by standards she can no longer afford, notably sis's new beau Chili (a terrific Bobby Cannavale), another working-class stiff who justifiably worries Jasmine will convince her she can "do better."

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