07/25/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2013

Cate Blanchett Channels Blanche DuBois in Woody Allen's Riveting Blue Jasmine

"I don't want realism, I want magic, yes magic... don't turn on that light!"

This is Tennessee Williams' half-mad dreamer, Blanche DuBois, caught in her own lies, begging for
forgiveness and understanding of who she is and why she's done what she's done.

She is, of course, neither forgiven nor understood in the classic play, "A Streetcar Named Desire."

• The absolutely great Australian star, Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, played the role of Blanche off-Broadway only a few years ago. Now, she plays the role again, as Jasmine -- with crushing modern overtones and an entirely new venue -- in Woody Allen's riveting movie Blue Jasmine. True to a modern type, she never says "don't turn on that light" as she portrays the modern sister to Blanche. This is all built on Williams' enduring and sometimes appealing drama of brutal truth, realism and tissue-thin illusion. But with a haut fashion sensitivity, go-directly-to-jail realism.

• I sat absolutely spellbound throughout most of this movie, until I realized that there wouldn't be any salvation for Woody's Jasmine, or "Blanche," just as there was only pity left for Tennesse's anti-heroine.

Blue Jasmine is set in our world where Cate is a vodka-slugging, Xanax-popping mess who has come from a rich NYC to live with her unpretentious sister and two rowdy little boys in San Francisco after the Manhattan-Hamptons life has fallen apart. Cate brings along plenty of attitude directed at her common sister's way of life and choice of male company. (Andrew Dice Clay is her ex husband and the terrific Bobby Cannavale, her new tough intended; both funny and effective.)

Sister Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins, is a tiny, wiry little thing. No beauty but delectable and real, existing as a grocer-store bagger and reminding one of a less conventional-looking Marisa Tomei. It's clear to see why she is catnip to men; easy-going, loving, forgiving, tolerant.

Everything about this excites Cate's disdain. She has been totally spoiled by hubby Alec Baldwin, a Madoff throw-back, who gave her an empty existence of name merchandise and jewelry and useless charities. You will recognize her instantly in the Hamptons scene that has ejected her since Baldwin's crimes were discovered. (Baldwin doesn't have much to do in these look backs to the past where he kisses, cajoles, and cheats with abandon and Cate has been his willing partner since their college days.)

• They are already talking Oscar for Cate and hers is, indeed, an overpowering performance. Be prepared. You haven't really seen this Cate before, not even in Notes on a Scandal. (In which she played another startlingly clueless, almost unpleasant character.) Could we laugh more? Perhaps. But Cate sticks to her utterly spoiled character's tragedy and misery which she telegraphs instantly. Unrelentingly. She has moments of charm and sex appeal and fake good manners, but basically she is unhinged from losing position, money and fakery itself. Occasionally, she descends into madness, talking out loud to herself. She seems "unredeemable" and we think we know where she is going. She is longing for a Manhattan "Belle Reeve" and Jasmine/Blanche can never return to that and undo her sins.

Actor Peter Sarsgaard has a marvelous turn as a John Kerry type rich State Department wannabe who seems to be a rescuer. (If you know the play, this is the "Mitch" character, swept away by Blanche in her perpetual moonlight.)

There are scenes where one almost admires Jasmine, fighting physically as a dental receptionist for her virtue against an idiot boss, or getting out of a car, dropping everything, as she escapes her last chance at respectability.

Blue Jasmine commands your attention. And Cate Blanchett overwhelms it and spares us nothing. The film is filled to the brim with comedy that is based in human realism, but not much of this scores with Cate, who behaves without delicacy or sensitivity to human beings around her. She is all "pretension." Unlike Blanche whom circumstances had already altered, Cate plays her new woman as if she is beyond redemption, even during her high life on the high wire. She is all Vuitton, Gucci attention!

You won't be bored even for an instant in Blue Jasmine, although you may feel tension and the impulse to shout at the screen, "Don't do that! Don't say that! Don't tell that lie! Drop the attitude!"

But Cate keeps playing her fake phony self without a trace of irony, realization or honesty. And she doesn't affect the comedy around her. (Actor Cannavale, for instance, has a great epic moment of
true tears -- he is an appealing, sympathetic Stanley Kowalski.)

This is one of Woody Allen's important films and it is brilliantly written and cast and peopled by great talent and of course, it is Tennesse Williams story brought into the 21st century by one of our best film auteurs ever. (Woody has borrowed from the classics before, as in his remake of "A Place in the Sun"--the modern murder mystery Match Point starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson.)

I think that Tennessee Williams would have adored Woody Allen's take on Blanche and "Streetcar" and it is really a movie to see. You can revel in Cate and forget about every other neurotic woman anyone ever celebrated.