Woody Allen's last few films have been romantic comedies set in such picturesque locales as Paris and Rome. Now with his new film, "Blue Jasmine," Allen is back in the United States (San Francisco and New York specifically), and romantic comedy is the furthest thing from his mind.

When we first meet Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), she is on flight to SFO, ensconced in first class, chatting merrily with the older woman sitting next to her, having a cocktail and looking every inch the fashionable, wealthy Manhattanite.

It is not until she gets to her destination that this picture of a woman of the One Percent starts to dissolve. Her seatmate (Bay Area theater veteran Joy Carlin) has no idea who Jasmine is and is dismissive of her chatter. When her monogrammed luggage comes up on the carousel, she initially has no idea what to do with it -- as if waiting for a limo driver to suddenly appear and handle everything.

She arrives at her sister's "house" in San Francisco, only to discover it is a nondescript apartment building in the Mission. Standing alone on the sidewalk, Jasmine looks completely lost and more than a bit frightened.

"Where am I, exactly?" Jasmine asks plaintively at one point.


Advertisement

And thus begins the story of Jasmine, a morality play of fractured trickle-down economics that explores, often brilliantly, the worlds of haves and have-nots and what happens when the elite find that their status can be transitory. Allen's best movie in some years and certainly his finest drama with comedy since 2005's "Match Point," it is a tale of wealth, greed and corruption -- and the shock waves that occur when crimes lead to punishment.

Certainly, Jasmine's story is a familiar one inspired by our modern times, a spin on the story of Bernie Madoff and, more specifically, on the story of Madoff's wife, Ruth. Jasmine's husband Hal (a pitch-perfect Alec Baldwin) is an investment king whose world is made up of pyramid schemes and offshore accounts. He is a charming man but also a soulless human being who, when Jasmine's working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and brother-in-law Augie (a very effective Andrew Dice Clay) hit the lottery, bilks them of their money. That he also cheats on Jasmine with regularity plays a part in the tale.

When the government catches on to Hal's schemes, he's off to jail -- and his (and Jasmine's) money is seized by the feds. She has to give up the Manhattan apartment and the house in the Hamptons and (horrors of horrors) move to Brooklyn. Soon, she's down to the designer clothes on her back and those monogrammed suitcases. She's popping Xanax, living on Stoli vodka and wondering where all her socialite friends have gone.

Eventually, the state of affairs drives her to San Francisco and her sister's apartment, which Jasmine finds unappealing. The good-hearted Ginger (Hawkins plays the role beautifully) loves Jasmine but is appalled by her excesses. Their verbal battle over why Jasmine flew first class when she has no money is a priceless bit of writing.

Not that Ginger doesn't have problems of her own. In the wake of Hal losing their money, Augie has split, and Ginger is now spending time with the hunky but quick-tempered mechanic Chili (the always-watchable Bobby Cannavale).

For a time, though, Ginger and Jasmine have a bit of happiness. Jasmine gets a taste of her old life back when she goes to a party in Marin and meets a diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard) who thinks she would be the perfect wife for his career. Ginger meets a seemingly sweet salesman (Louis C.K.).

Allen's writing and direction is sharp, thoughtful and emotionally charged -- although Bay Area audiences may be disappointed that the ability he has shown to capture a sense of place isn't in evidence when it comes to San Francisco. Much of the film (in flashback) is set in New York, and the local scenes really could have been set in any major city.

The heart and soul of "Blue Jasmine" is Blanchett, who has done some extraordinary acting in film (an Oscar for 2004's "The Aviator") and on stage. (In 2009, she did a critically acclaimed turn as Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire" -- a role that has a lot in common with Jasmine.) But this is her finest piece of work, and she makes the often dislikable Jasmine into a compelling, complex character whose grand delusions are eventually her downfall. Her ability to portray both Jasmine's high moments and her low points makes for an extraordinary character study.

In lesser hands, the final scenes of "Blue Jasmine" might have gone for redemption and the possibility of a better future. Instead, it comes down to one last wrenching moment, one last bit of extraordinary acting by Blanchett.

For this former princess of the One Percent, a happy ending is elusive.

For film news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.

'BLUE JASMINE'

* * * 1/2

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, language and sexual content)
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins and Bobby Cannavale
Director: Woody Allen
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes