MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS
Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Written by Wong Kar-wai
and Lawrence Block
Starring Norah Jones
and Jude Law
Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai's first foray into English-language cinema is, to be blunt, not very good. The celebrated stylist behind In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and Ashes of Time is way out of his element in his story of various lonely Americans living in New York, Memphis and Las Vegas.
The Wong themes - melancholy, memory and misfits - and his stylistic flourishes are all in place: There's the retrospective voice-over narration, the lounge-music soundtrack, the expressionist colour palette dominated by red-orange lighting, with fluttery editing to signal the passage of time. Yet My Blueberry Nights feels off-kilter throughout, thinly written (crime writer Lawrence Block collaborated) and largely miscast.
The casting problem starts with the movie's lead, Norah Jones. She plays the heartbroken Elizabeth, who wanders into a New York diner looking for her cheating boyfriend. Jones isn't superficially awkward in her delivery, but there's no revelation of inner life in her acting. In lieu of a character, Wong treats Jones as a fetish object: The camera lingers over her traces of ice cream on her parted lips or a tendril of hair curling over her cheek.
In the diner, Elizabeth meets the owner, Jeremy (Jude Law), an English marathoner, now a chain-smoking restaurateur also suffering from heartbreak. Law creates a character, a boyish playful innocent, who likes to review the restaurant's security camera tapes to see what he's missing in life. He keeps a jar full of keys behind the counter, each with a story of a lost connection. When he meets Elizabeth, he invites her to have a slice of his blueberry pie - the pastry, he says, that everyone else overlooks. She returns a few more times for late-night pie until, one night, after drinking too much beer with her dessert, passes out on the counter. The next morning, she catches a bus out of town, hitting the road for the next few months, picking up waitressing jobs, occasionally sending a postcard back to Jeremy recounting her adventures.
A journey down to Memphis brings Elizabeth, now known as Lizzie, into Tennessee Williams country, with David Strathairn as a self-destructive hard-drinking cop in love with his promiscuous separated wife (Rachel Weisz, with a cornpone accent so thick it could break a sabre).
Elizabeth heads out again, this time ending up in Nevada, where she changes her name to Beth and meets a wise-talking card shark played by, of all people, Natalie Portman. Even with dyed hair, heavy makeup and a cigarette dangling from her bottom lip, Portman still looks like a schoolgirl pretending to be somebody's mom.
Somewhere between its debut at Cannes last year and its current release, Wong cut 20 minutes out of the film, though it's impossible to remember what is missing. The film still feels too long, a vapid boy-girl story with an occasionally striking soundtrack (notably Cassandra Wilson's spine-tingling version of Neil Young's Harvest Moon), too many meaningless incidents and an after-effect of sluggish satiation. Wong's appreciation for America focuses so much on the limitless opportunities for unhealthy living - heavy drinking, smoking, chicken-fried steaks, sleepless nights and high-carb pastries - that, by the end, audiences may be reeling from the cinema looking for the nearest spa.