Wong Kar-Wai movies are like blueberry pies: rich and tasty, but too much can lead to cavities or a stomachache. Such is the case with My Blueberry Nights the famed auteur's English-language debut, and a fine case that the director is currently moving laterally. Wong's fans may still be pleased, as the film is filled with Wong's trademark themes, beautiful images, achingly familiar emotions, and self-indulgent navel-gazing. Non-fans may also be pleased as the film is Wong's most accessible work, and features a cast of pretty (and pretty good) Hollywood actors. It's also curiously overacted, strangely expository, and a bit pandering in the territory it covers. Basically, My Blueberry Nights occupies a lower rung on the ladder that is the Wong Kar-Wai filmography, showcasing little new from the acclaimed filmmaker. Lowered expectations are a must.
Singer Norah Jones stars as Elizabeth, a heartbroken New Yorker whose boyfriend has left her for another woman. Upset, she leaves the keys to his apartment with Jeremy (Jude Law), the proprietor of a local cafe, who possesses a whole jar full of these keys left behind by jilted lovers. Jeremy's cafe is nearby Elizabeth's ex's place - which is why she's pining for him there - but more importantly, it's the place where a serendipitous connection is established between both Jeremy and Elizabeth. The two chat, commiserate, and stumble around for clues to their romantic future. Jeremy feeds her leftover desserts, and details the hows, whys, and maybes of how he came into possession of all those keys. Time passes, blueberry pie is consumed, and affection blossoms, but before the threshold to romance can be crossed, Elizabeth abruptly departs, leaving Jeremy alone and wondering where in Hell she went.
The answer: she's taken an impromptu road trip. The film picks up with Elizabeth in Memphis, where she takes two jobs - a waitress gig in a diner, and also one in a bar - in order to take her mind off her heartbreak. There she meets Arnie (David Strathairn), an alcoholic cop whose suffocating love for his estranged wife Sue Lynn (Rachel Weisz) has turned him into a besotted, self-aware shell of a man. Sue Lynn shows up at the bar too, but her haughty behavior and presumably wanton reputation make her something of a local pariah. Meanwhile, Elizabeth - who's called "Lizzie" by her new acquaintances - observes and quietly opines, sometimes personally, and sometimes through that trademark Wong Kar-Wai voiceover. Through her connection to these other emotionally-crippled souls, she finds an outlet for her own inescapable romantic problems. Or perhaps not. It's hard to tell.
The best narrative comparison for My Blueberry Nights to Wong Kar-Wai's previous work is perhaps that untold few months in Chungking Express when Faye Wong suddenly jetted out of Hong Kong, leaving Tony Leung Chiu-Wai confused and alone in Lan Kwai Fong. The reason for Faye's sudden change of scenery was never verbally revealed, but the idea behind it seems fleshed out in My Blueberry Nights. That is, before either Elizabeth or Faye can move forward, she has to change something - her life, her surroundings, or maybe just herself - in order to become a person who can embrace the love that lies before her. My Blueberry Nights is gratifying for a Wong Kar-Wai fan in that it references and expands upon some of Wong's common themes. Like Chow Mo-Wan or Su Li-Zhen, these characters are stuck, but Norah Jones' Elizabeth is definitely looking to go forward. It's through Elizabeth's observation of others who are stuck - and who are perhaps moving forward on their own - that new and potentially rich territory is found for Wong to practice his inimitable, uh, Wong Kar-Wai-ness.
However, the above is only a thematic expansion of the Wong Kar-Wai oeuvre, and one of the largest positives of My Blueberry Nights. In other ways, the film moves laterally, and even backwards for Wong, as its technique is familiar, and the emotions and themes it mines appear far more superficial than they ever have before. This is largely due to the script, which is frightfully awkward - a real debit, when one considers the usual awkwardness that accompanies Wong's over-stuffed self-reflection.
That awkwardness is at least more palatable when the characters are alone, or are deluding themselves through rampant voiceover. In My Blueberry Nights, all the self-examination and realization is fed to the audience in dialogue, usually from one character to another in long speeches that probably would never occur in real life. Also, the examination is usually dead-on, meaning people hit the heart of their issues with straight-faced seriousness and superb clarity. With so much 12-step touchy-feely soul-searching handed to the audience verbally, the emotions and themes of the film become simplistic, and even trite.
In past Wong Kar-Wai films, audiences were able to observe and even discover the characters themselves, but in My Blueberry Nights, Norah Jones becomes the audience, and that one-step removal makes the film feel like an empty facsimile of the Wong Kar-Wai experience. Whether this is due to the screenplay (co-written by Wong and author Lawrence Block), or perhaps simply Wong's admitted desire to make a faster, more accessible Wong Kar-Wai film, the effect is that we're getting something that feels beneath what Wong is capable of.
The film does feel more accessible; the drama is more universal, and the road trip is more about the metaphorical journey than capturing a particular time and place. Unfortunately, Wong doesn't capitalize on his American locations beyond obvious and even stereotypical trappings. People wear cowboy hats, eat blueberry pie, or play Texas Hold 'em. The alienation and claustrophobia felt by characters in Wong's earlier films felt tied to their locations; here, the locations don't necessarily add to the characters or their lives. All we're seeing is just another picturesque landscape or multi-patterned tile floor.
The performances are quite good, with actors creating personalities and delivering discernible, and sometimes felt emotion. Natalie Portman shows up as Leslie, a professional gambler that Elizabeth (now called "Betty") encounters in the final leg of her road trip. The character comes with trite daddy issues, plus pandering dialogue and an obvious brassiness, but Portman makes Leslie charismatic and fun. Similarly, David Strathairn is grave and convincing, Jude Law is winsome, and Rachel Weisz practically bleeds overdone Southern bravado. These are juicy parts, but the actors seem to know it, delivering performances that are showy to distraction. The awkward dialogue doesn't help either, ultimately giving the film an obvious, self-aware sheen that makes it seem egregiously manufactured. Through all this, Norah Jones is the unpolished lead, clearly out of her depth, but still quite likable and even identifiable. Wong Kar-Wai can't hide her obvious inexperience, however, and her performance never shakes its amateurish feel.
Where My Blueberry Nights succeeds is in its superficial details, and an approximation of the lyrical feel that Wong Kar-Wai almost never fails at creating. His selection of music and musical performers is flawless; Norah Jones fares much better on the soundtrack, and Wong even references himself with a harmonica version of "Yumeji's Theme" from Shigeru Umebayashi's In the Mood For Love score. The visuals are ace, handled here by cinematographer Darius Khondji in place of usual Wong Kar-Wai cohort Christopher Doyle. Wong doesn't bring Doyle along this time, but Wong's usual art director and editor William Cheung Suk-Ping is present, delivering his usual superlative work.
On a superficial level, My Blueberry Nights should thrill, and there's style here that can still invoke some of that long-missed Wong Kar-Wai feeling. Wong finds moments to deliver the small touches he's known for, with the occasional beautiful image (the kiss is vintage Wong Kar-Wai) and affecting, familiar little quirks. Details like the characters' affection for objects, Elizabeth's changing name (Elizabeth to Lizzie to Betty), and even the use of obvious metaphor can still strike a chord. Even in eager-to-please, ultra-accessible mode, Wong Kar-Wai is an undeniable artist.
That may not be enough, though. The film's overt aims, abundance of exposition, and self-indulgent script prove to be millstones, making this splashy re-introduction to Wong Kar-Wai romanticism a bit underwhelming. Like his classic Chungking Express, My Blueberry Nights is sweeter and more immediately fulfilling than his darker, more somber films, but things feel slightly forced this time around. One thing lacking in My Blueberry Nights is Wong Kar-Wai's usual elliptical storytelling. Wong's wondrous sense of living between moments is largely absent, replaced instead with characters who tell us what they're doing and how they feel - and they do it all the time instead of letting us figure it out ourselves. My Blueberry Nights replaces Wong Kar-Wai's quietly suffering characters with existential mouthpieces who can't seem to shut up - and his work suffers noticeably for it.
Wong has been doing his thing for a long time now, and after reaching the seeming peak of his powers with In the Mood For Love, it seems like he's now trying out things that are only detrimental to his previous strengths. Wong's most ardent fans may still find My Blueberry Nights to be worth the trip, as Wong can still tap into an audience's emotions like few filmmakers can. It's all still there: the talent, the themes, the effervescent way he can get his characters to live and breathe. But these characters do too much talking, and what they say only makes Wong Kar-Wai seem like a wannabe of himself. Hopefully, My Blueberry Nights is just a showy growing pain in Wong Kar-Wai's burgeoning international career, and not necessarily a sign of things to come. (Kozo 2008)