My Blueberry Nights (2007) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for language and some violence
Running time: 113 min.
Cast: Norah Jones, Jude Law, David Strathairn, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Frankie Faison
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Screenplay: Wong Kar Wai, Lawrence Block
Master of melancholy moods and improvisational romantic dramas, Wong Kar Wai (Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love), brings his trademark style to his first English-language feature to mixed results. His cinematography and camera orchestrations are as sumptuous as ever, almost worth watching without dialogue, and yet, he doesn't exactly offer anything new here -- it occasionally seems like he is trying to remake his cult classic, Chungking Express, for a Western audience, with some of the more interesting bits of his other films tossed in for good measure. I suppose he doesn't really have to worry about repeating himself to a certain extent, as many audiences in the US and other countries may not be intimately familiar with his previous works, though they certainly have been lauded by critics and film buffs alike. Ignoring the fact that a master filmmaker is at work here, My Blueberry Nights has nice moments to be sure, and a solid cast of actors, but the writer-director is never quite able to string enough of these moments together to give them the substance to deliver a satisfying whole.
Interesting casting sees singer Norah Jones in her feature film debut, and while you certainly won't see anything in her performance to suggest big things in her future from an acting standpoint, she does a decent enough job in a relatively undemanding role. She plays Elizabeth, a young woman in NYC who walks into a cafe run by Jeremy (Law, The Holiday), where he boyfriend was seen eating with another woman. After getting her suspicions confirmed, she leaves the keys to her now ex's apartment with Jeremy, of which he has a large collection of, but returns because the two form a friendship of stagnancy that both find liberating. Eventually, Elizabeth decides that it's time to move on, literally, by making her way across the country, working at dive bars and diners in order to earn enough for her next move. She stays in contact with Jeremy through a series of postcards, never revealing her whereabouts, as he desperately yearns for a reunion. Along the way she meets an alcoholic police officer (Strathairn, Fracture) mourning over the wife (Weisz, Eragon) who has left him, as well as a young lady gambler (Portman, Goya's Ghosts) who is always on the verge of the next big pot.
Wong Kar Wai wrote the script alongside best-selling crime mystery novelist Lawrence Block, adding to the uniqueness of the cast and crew that come together for this odd drama. Romances aren't exactly Block's strong suit, and it occasionally shows in the artifice of the situation, although Kar Wai's command of creating mood is just enough to keep the entirety of the production from collapsing from too many overdone story elements. Together, they have tried to create a soul-searching tale of a woman finally coming to find that she likes herself, and though it isn't entirely successful in that mode, there are periods where the film works well. If you want to break the film into thirds, the scenes with Jude Law at the diner which bookend the film are adequate, the middle portion involving the stalking husband are dreadful, and the film comes to life a bit during the second half during the Natalie Portman scenes, mostly because her character is far more interesting than any of the others up to that point.
Like many of Wong Kar Wai's works, the soundtrack he employs sets the tempo for the film as a whole. Naturally, Norah Jones provides her trademark moody, romantic jazz-tinged work, along with fellow songstress Cat Power (who also appears in the film) and Ry Cooder. When the music and images dance together, Kar Wai's film is a beauty to behold. It's almost a shame that such confectionary pleasures have to be distracted by the mundane tale of a simple girl lost and found, not nearly as special as the world she decides to traverse through. Or perhaps that's the point -- like the blueberry pie left over in the cafe at the end of the day, she is untouched by the rest of the consumers, completely intact, only to be chosen by those who don't want to see a perfectly good thing go to waste. Perhaps that's the point of the story, and perhaps not, but the way that Wong Kar Wai challenges people to look deeper into the surface to delve their own meaning shows that he can often create art out of his artifice.
My Blueberry Nights so very much represents Wong Kar Wai at his best to a certain respect, and at his worst in others. If perhaps he could have told this tale utilizing just the portion with the gambling Portman and her dysfunctional way of looking at the world, contrasting it with Elizabeth's naivety, I think he'd have another masterwork to add to his already impressive repertoire. Sadly, the distraught alcoholic scenes dominate the bulk of the story, which is overwrought, leaden and without much poignancy. Although consummately presented, it does make you wonder if perhaps part of the pleasure of Wong Kar Wai's previous efforts is that they are interesting in their oddness, benefiting from being the foreign cinema examples they are. We like the fact that he creates his own unique flavors. By trying to make a movie that is about as American as apple pie, he loses a great deal of his appeal, as it's neither particularly good apple pie, nor particularly good Wong Kar Wai.
©2007 Vince Leo