‘My Blueberry Nights’ is the first American film to be created by renowned Chinese director Wong Kar Wei, and, while I wouldn’t call it a successful film, I found it to be an interesting and watchable one.
Wong’s earlier films, which are all wonderful in their own particular ways, feature a sense of dark romance, and constant reassessments of the nature of romantic memory. They are also visually singular – whether they follow a single story line (In The Mood For Love, Happy Together), a series of distinct interconnected episodes (Days Of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels) or a constantly shifting abstracted melange of storylines and time periods (2046), they are all art-directed colorfully and meticulously, and few filmakers in the world have his refined sense of frame composition. They’re eye candy with real emotional substance.
I suspect that when Wong took on the challenge of shooting in America, he decided to keep the first film relatively small and modest. His story is a pretty indie-friendly road movie, following a heartbroken neutral protagonist, Elizabeth (the musician Norah Jones) as she leaves New York and a failed relationship behind to try to reconstruct her own self. Along the way she takes various waiting and/or bartending jobs, and encounters other notable characters along the way. At the end, of course, she returns to New York with a new, more confident sense of self and starts anew.
Early on, she pours her forlorn heart out to cafe manager Jude Law, who is amiably philosophical about the transient nature of life and love. It is he who serves her the metaphorical blueberry pie. Law is quite good here – truthfully grounded and unforced. Even after she leaves New York, we intermittently return to Law’s character – she stays in touch with postcards, and we meet Law’s own long-lost love in a nice cameo turn by Cat Power (credited to her real name, Chan Marshall).
In Memphis, Elizabeth (whose waitstaff nametags amusingly alternate as Liz, Beth, Betty, etc. as she travels) meets Arnie Copeland (David Strathairn) – seemingly mild-mannered, even-tempered beat cop by day, and bitter, drunken, self-punishing cuckold by night. He’s pining away for his wife, Sue Lynn (Rachel Weisz), who wanders into the bar from time to time to radiate pheromones at the male clientele and show up the jilted husband she’s separated from. It’s a pretty standard southern potboiler scenario, but it’s saved from outright tiresomeness by the rock-solid naturalistic acting chops of Strathairn, Weisz and veteran character actor Frankie Faison. Weisz’s character, in particular, feels like a contrived escapee from lesser Tennessee Williams, or one of the tawdry southern wives in Arthur Penn / Lillian Hellman’s ‘The Chase’. But she deftly presents the stock character, and the character’s function, while still investing it with some real substance and individuality, especially in a late scene alone with Elizabeth.
In Nevada, Elizabeth meets Leslie (Natalie Portman), a professional gambler with unreliable luck and big issues about self-sufficiency. ‘Garden State’ and ‘V for Vendetta’ are the last things I’ve seen Portman in; it seems a little awkward to compliment Portman on creating a Real Live Grown-Up character, but there it is. Her singular youthfulness is, obviously, a selling point in earlier films, but there’s no trace of eager post-adolescence here. Leslie is a fearless, hard-boiled veteran as a poker player – very Annie Duke. Only later, when dealing with her ailing father, do we see the cracks in her armor.
Each episode is a well-told story in-and-of itself. But Wong struggles with the overall tone. He’s surrendered his customary languid subtlety for a far more forthright sense of narrative and character. It feels like something he’s probably glad to have tried, fumbled at, and learned from. As awkward as his handling of serious Western actors is, he’s obviously given them as much room to move as they might have wanted. As for Norah Jones, she’s no actor, God bless her, but she’s not asked to do much, and she’s an appealing presence. Her function as the connecting through-line from episode to episode is well served, considering it’s a function that Wong hasn’t really felt the need for in his other films.
I find admirable failures to be just as rewarding, in a lot of ways, as genuine successes, and while I recommend this film, I’m not surprised that it may disappear in the next week or so. The summer blockbusters will push it out quickly, and the Saturday night 8:00 screening I attended in Chicago had a total of five people in the theater. But it’ll be on DVD sooner than later, and it’s worth your time.
Otherwise, if you haven’t already, absolutely check out his earlier films, especially ‘Fallen Angels’, ‘In The Mood For Love’ and ‘2046’.