As much a trifle as its title suggests, “My Blueberry Nights” sees Hong Kong stylist Wong Kar Wai applying his characteristic visual and thematic doodles to a wispy story of lovelorn Yanks. With pop music sensation Norah Jones floating through the episodic tale as a blank-page heroine striving to overcome the blues, beautifully embroidered pic generates increased interest as it travels from East to West and encounters Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman along the way, but its ambition and accomplishment remain modest in the extreme. B.O. hopes, at least Stateside, rest much more with romantically inclined young fans of Jones than among Wong devotees.
“Blueberry” echoes the director’s biggest hit, “In the Mood for Love,” in its moody melancholy, claustrophic settings and highly decorative shooting style. But while the actors’ dialogue delivery is perfectly natural, the aphoristic philosophical nuggets Wong favors sound banal and clunky in this context, leaving the film thematically in the shallow end of the pool. Additionally, the road movie potential of the film’s second half feel significantly under-realized.
Wong and his co-scenarist, crime novelist Lawrence Block, dig themselves into a bit of a hole during a borderline contrived initial half-hour devoted to the first-stage shock felt by Elizabeth (Jones) after having been dumped by her two-timing boyfriend of five years. Beset by hurt, Elizabeth consoles herself with latenight sweets feasts provided by the obliging Jeremy (Jude Law), the instantly sympathetic British proprietor of a Gotham café.
The establishment’s cramped quarters are made to seem even moreso by the shallow focus lensing, which places objects, window writing and anything else Wong and cinematographer Darius Khondji can think of between the actors and the camera, which customarily roves around in search of decorous minutiae. As always, Wong is able to transform anything within his field of vision into something worth looking at, although, strangely, the intense close-ups of blueberry pie and other desserts dripping with cream look more like gross anatomical snapshots than anything you’d want to eat.
Jeremy’s almost oversensitivity to Elizabeth’s plight and his hyperactive eagerness to please gets old pretty quickly. But interlude ends in a hushed kiss –Jeremy can’t resist the intimate possibilities of removing some lingering cream from a sleeping Elizabeth’s lips with his own –that removes any doubts of his own interests and sets up Elizabeth’s subsequent casual postcard correspondence with Jeremy from various spots on her future journey.
Working as a diner waitress by day and a barmaid by night in Memphis, Elizabeth becomes a sounding board to alcoholic cop Arnie (David Strathairn), who patronizes both establishments, and witness to the death throes of his marriage to Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz), a faithless floozy who makes a point of flaunting her adultery, but ultimately pours out (in a long single take impressively put over by Weisz) her marital past and true feelings to Elizabeth.
Wong clearly delights in photographing Weisz in glamorized states of sultry disarray, but this proves just a warm up for his treatment of Natalie Portman, who pumps sass and energy into her portrait of a young, frosted-haired gambler who takes Elizabeth, now working as a Nevada casino waitress, for an emotional, financial and automotive ride. Leslie, who learned everything she knows from her gambler father, prides herself on her ability to read her opponents around a poker table and decides Elizabeth has a lot to learn about not taking people at face value. Predictably, the young women find they have something to learn from one another.
After all the effort expended upon elaborating the interior scenes, the film disappoints when it hits the great outdoors of the American West. Frequently speeding up the action of the women tooling around in Leslie’s Jaguar convertible and allowing the scenery to flit by fleetingly, Wong seems to take no interest at all in settings that have provided great inspiration to many filmmakers. Reacting accordingly, Elizabeth returns to New York for an innocuously romantic wrap-up.
For all its insubstantiality, “My Blueberry Nights” does provide some catnip allure that will be to some tastes. Best served will be those willing and able to embrace the general void of Elizabeth’s character and place themselves within it. Jones proves agreeable but bland company in the role; she’s attractive, but lacks mystery, emotional vitality and that something special behind the eyes. As if to make up for this in their scenes together, Law starts off in overdrive and only rarely downshifts; he’s more effective when he does so. Cult singer Chan Marshall has a tasty scene as Jeremy’s ex back for a quick visit.
Visual beauty is a given in Wong’s films, as is the use of pop songs and old standards, and nothing has changed on those counts here.