I do not know that Woody Allen has ever made a movie that is so much about its central performance, to the exclusion of every other concern, as Blue Jasmine; the most recent film of his monumentally prolific career that even comes close is Another Woman, a quarter of a century old. This isn't meant as praise or criticism, merely an observation of what makes Blue Jasmine such a shocking outlier in the director's career, at a point where we'd assume that he would be content to recycle themes and tonalities over and over again, mostly because he's spent much of the last several years doing precisely that.

As just about everybody has already pointed out, the film is essentially a Bernie Madoff-themed gloss on A Streetcar Named Desire, making this the first time that any Allen film has seriously acknowledged the fact that the 21st Century has happened. The title is a reference to Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), whose plush life as a New York socialite and hostess has been devastated by the arrest of her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, the sole Allen veteran in the cast), who built his massive wealth out of fraud and shady money-juggling. With every tether holding her life in place snapped, Jasmine has nowhere to go but to San Francisco, there to live with Ginger (Sally Hawkins), her sister - both girls, we are told, were adopted by their parents - in circumstances awfully far removed from anything Jasmine has experienced throughout her adult life. Though given the out-of-control cost of living in San Francisco, the alleged unmitigated squalor in which Ginger lives on a grocery store bagger's salary is as unbelievable and out-of-touch as any of the director's attempts to depict the life of the ragged poor. I mean, it's a multi-bedroom apartment in a relatively clean neighborhood safe enough for a clueless woman to wander about, obviously lost; that's like, $2500 a month in San Francisco dollars.

A thoroughly digusted Jasmine makes it her immediate task to constantly berate Ginger for all the terrible things in her life, primarily her choice in men: low-rent ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), low-rent mechanic boyfriend Chili (Bobby Canavale), marginally less low-rent audio technician Al (Louis C.K.). Though really, it's a free-for-all with Jasmine, and no element of limited-budget blue collar life is too innocuous for her to spout off about it with withering, superior rage. In the meantime, everything under the sun is apt to trigger a flashback to the life she'd used to live with Hal, before he went to prison and she had a nervous breakdown, from which she has clearly never quite recovered, and over the course of the film's frazzling 98 minutes, we see in punishing detail how a fragile psyche can break, repeatedly, under too much stress born of loathing - loathing for everything and everyone around oneself, but self-loathing as well, as Jasmine seems at times aware that her aggressive, lying behavior is certainly not making things any better in her daily life.

This is Cate Blanchett's movie, and that's all there is to it. Other people give fine, even great performances: Hawkins in particular is excellent as a desperately cheery mess, easily the best thing she's done since her penetrating small performance in An Education, four years ago. And the men in the cast are all perfectly satisfactory, even though the script never quite manages to give any of them a really solid reason for being there in the first place.

Still, the focus is first and always on Blanchett's portrayal of Jasmine, so it's not merely good luck but absolutely pivotal that she's so fucking wonderful in the role: at a glance, I suppose it's the best performance of her cinematic career, though I'd need to revisit some of her '90s work before I was willing to swear to that in a court of law. It's the best imaginable marriage of performer and character: Blanchett's greatest liability since forever has been a certain brittleness and theatricality, a feeling that she's never inhabiting a role so much as wearing it like pancake makeup, projecting feelings rather than feeling them. All of which is ideally suited to a woman with a fixed, intense desire to be understood as the sum of her surface qualities: inner life is not something Jasmine has much use for, and her carefully manicured way of speaking in a nowhere-in-particular posh accent, and her constant, menacing "fuck you" way of looking at other people are poses that Blanchett adopts wonderfully. So too does she managed to navigate the open sores in Jasmine's personality, the moments when the role requires her to shift reactions and emotions (real or put-on) in just a brief handful of frames, and the terrifying moments where she simply turns off, going perfectly blank on the breath of a single syllable. It's a virtuoso performance, and to be fair, the movie and director absolutely hand it to her; but just because Blanchett doesn't have to work to dominate and show off, that doesn't mean that it's not a magnificent display of skill. Jasmine is a cruel, unlikable figure, pathetic without being sympathetic, and anything less than a perfect performance would leave Blue Jasmine totally acrid and unwatchable; Blanchett prevents that from happening, and it's breathtaking and brilliant to watch.

But again, the performance is the film, and while the whole thing counts, by default, as "good" Woody Allen (coming hot on the heels of the confounding To Rome with Love, this is not such a huge achievement), it's besotted with problems. There are thematic problems: having identified the wife of his made-up Madoff analogue as a bitter woman who cannot feel genuine love, Allen thereupon runs out of ideas what to say with her; and the less said on his inability to conceive of poverty, the better. There are structural problems: the flashbacks are weirdly schematic; and there are massive dead-ends, most notably a bit with Michael Stuhlbarg as Jasmine's rapey employer, a sequence that serves no purpose but to demonstrate that Allen has heard of sexual harassment, but he's never really thought about it. There are crushing aesthetic problems: shot by the talented Javier Aguirresarobe, Blue Jasmine is nonetheless a shitty-looking movie, one of the ugliest that the director has ever graced us with, and he is not at all inclined to make films notable for their visuals, employing instead a hands-off style designed largely to give the actors space to breathe. That works as well in Blue Jasmine as it must, though any movie that makes San Francisco looks this low-rent (even if it fits how the protagonist thinks of it) is doing something inexplicably wrong.

Basically, the film makes a hell of an impact, and Blanchett burns up the screen in her depiction of a fragmenting psychology: but it's not really making any keen observations about that psychology. Arguably, that doesn't matter, and the blistering power of the acting is justification in and of itself. But everything else is awfully shallow, the dark comic tone wanders in and out until the final act where it finally blinks out, the movie has nothing interesting to say about the malfeasance of the rich, and it hardly tells any story at all, let alone an interesting one. It's entirely worth seeing for Blanchett and Hawkins, but a return to form for a spotty filmmaker, it ain't.