It's always a tightrope when foreign filmmakers, particularly those from the Hong Kong market, come to American shores to ply their trade. Though it doesn't appear that Wong Kar Wai
is going to be setting up shop permanently in Hollywood (nobody's going to be after him to direct the next Die Hard installment), My Blueberry Nights marks his first English-language film, with an entirely American and British cast. It shows that the director is not just a foreign-language specialty, his gifts are quite apparent even when the veil of mystery is lifted for English-speaking audiences once the subtitles are gone. However, My Blueberry Nights also shows that for all Wong's rightly vaunted abilities and passionate sense of cinema, there are some glaringly obvious rough patches in his approach, brought into sharp relief by transplanting the action from the teeming streets of Hong Kong to the wide open spaces of America, where his instincts for actors seem less sure.
An odd road movie of sorts that spends most of its time hanging around in diners, bars, and casinos (and precious little of it on the road), My Blueberry Nights will be noted in many quarters for it being the feature film-acting debut of jazz chanteuse Norah Jones
. To put it briefly: No actress is she. Playing a lovelorn young woman named Elizabeth, she first shows up in a Brooklyn diner run by Jeremy, a charming Manchester immigrant played with the expected lighthearted dash by Jude Law
. In the middle of a breakup, Elizabeth moons about the café, eating the excellent pie (best in the city!) and chatting with Jeremy, winning his heart even as hers is breaking over somebody else. Then Elizabeth ups and skips out, landing next in Memphis, where she waitresses at a café and a bar, telling everyone she's working two jobs to save up for a car. Article continues below
Although the first segment is supposed to be this episodic tale's romantic backbone, it stands in weak relief against the Memphis-set scenes. There, Elizabeth meets a sad drunk named Arnie, played with masterful ease by David Strathairn, who seems able to wring more pathos out of a glance than Law can in three pages worth of dialogue. The stormy cause of Arnie's trauma, his ex-wife, comes whipping into the bar in the form of Rachel Weisz
, performing here on utter screaming overdrive and ratcheting what had been a moody jazz number up into a raucous electric blues howler. Later, Elizabeth washes up in the Nevada desert at a down-at-the-heels casino where she falls in with a bleach-blonde cardsharp played by Natalie Portman
with all the jagged edges of a young Sharon Stone. Meanwhile, Elizabeth sends cryptic postcards back to Jeremy, pining handsomely behind his diner counter.
The whole affair can appear terribly artificial, of course, what with all those iconic bar and diner scenes, the wind-whipped desert of Nevada sequence, and the soundtrack of Ry Cooder, Motown, and jazz standards by Jones herself. Wong keeps himself from falling down the same trap of freeze-dried Americana that some foreign directors like Wim Wenders always seem to do, and he's able to do that by hewing to the same kind of potent heartbreak that nailed down overstylized romances like In the Mood for Love and 2046. True, the look of My Blueberry Nights suffers somewhat from not having Wong's usual cinematographer Christopher Doyle on deck, but Darius Khondji does admirable work nonetheless (those close-ups of ice-cream melting in rivulets into pie). Wong's decision to film on location across the country pays off also; although he could have easily reconstructed most of the film's sets on a Toronto backlot, there is a certain grit of authenticity visible behind these admittedly melodramatic stories (scripted with a pulp writer's punch and occasional laziness by mystery author Lawrence Block).
What doesn't work in any way, really, is Jones herself. Given the dialogue's sometimes over-obvious nature, Jones's blank expression and dull line readings bring little to the party; she is only occasionally juiced into more expressive performance when the actor playing opposite (particularly Strathairn and Portman) is working in overdrive. It's a nearly soulless bit of acting, and frustrating because of how it hampers the film from ever really taking flight. As a first English-language film, My Blueberry Nights is mostly a success, though set apart from Wong's previous work in that it won't have people coming back over and over again. The film does, however, whet one's appetite for what might come next.