Skeptical viewers may suspect, with some reason,
that Wong Kar Wai has been making the same movie for a number of
years now – their subjects include displacement across time
and space, romantic yearning, color and light, loneliness and
reverie. When he changes up the formula, let’s say by making his
lovers two men (Happy Together) or by goosing the ennui with lavish
science-fiction inserts (2046), it only seems to intensify the
familiar feelings of gentle anxiety and punch-drunk desire. “We love what we
can’t have, and we can’t have what we love,” Wong once told an
interviewer, and over and over his films seem to find new approaches
to that same disconnect, traveling roads that wind through familiar
surroundings but offer a slightly different view of the landscape.
As anyone who’s gaped with joy upon a typically lavish Wong canvas – color and light, love and loss, late-night lunch counters and smeary, step-printed cityscapes – can attest, the effect is highly personal. It may be true, in fact, that westerners feel a closer connection to Wong’s generally city-bound melancholy than do his own local audiences. (According to Wikipedia, As Tears Go By, a relative blip on the international cinema scene on its release, represents Wong’s biggest hit to date in Hong Kong, and not one of his films has set the local box office afire.) So it’s not surprising that so much of Wong’s trademark aesthetic has survived as he triangulates his creative position on the American scene by approaching his first English-language film as a road movie shot on three different locations. And then maybe it’s unavoidable that, despite the director’s efforts to minimize any sense of cultural displacement, including his first collaborative effort with a co-screenwriter, the American crime novelist Laurence Block — which for this self-reliant auteur qualifies as a fairly serious concession — My Blueberry Nights feels like an abundantly attractive travelogue, the work of an artist who’s passing through rather than taking up residence.
My Blueberry Nights begins and ends with the knowing, watchful, somewhat sleepy face of Norah Jones, the pop songstress who serves this time out as Wong’s eyes and ears in the diners and downtown cafes and casinos and on the interstate highways of America. The first third takes place in a tiny sliver of Manhattan, where the charming (but single) romantic Jeremy (Jude Law) owns a cozy cafe serving apparently delicious baked goods. Elizabeth (Jones) steps through his doorway after a fresh break-up with her boyfriend. The two of them bond over blueberry pie, and Elizabeth is taken by the bowl of lost keys Jeremy keeps behind the counter — the forgotten or discarded talismans of ex-lovers — in case their owners should ever return to claim them. Naturally, one set of those keys represents a particular heartbreak for Jeremy.
But just when you expect the movie to settle into an adult-contemporary New York romance groove, Wong hits the road. Perhaps taking a cue from Jeremy, Elizabeth lands waitressing and bartending jobs, first in Memphis and later in Las Vegas, where she becomes an observer of human interactions. The suggestion is that, hurt and dispirited by the implosion of her own true love, she’s decided to study the ways real people relate to each other as a spectator, not a participant. In Memphis, where her nametag bills her as “Lizzie,” she pours too many drinks for Arnie Copeland (David Strathairn), a middle-aged cop burned by a break-up with his fiery, much younger wife, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). Strathairn and Weisz deliver their performances inside quotation marks. They don’t feel authentic for a moment, but they’re fun to watch, and Weisz, considering how love at first sight can go wrong over time, gets to deliver the film’s best line. It’s country-western lyric as sex metaphor: “I was 17 when he pulled me over.” Her story is a funny, wistful combination of trash Americana and Wong romanticism — the sexy young thing’s run-in with the authority figure who puts the cuffs on but can’t keep her behind bars — that comes to an unhappy end.
Wong’s Memphis story feels a little hokey, but it’s not until Elizabeth hits Vegas that My Blueberry Nights starts to feel completely redundant. Working as a cocktail waitress, Elizabeth (now “Beth”) connects with Leslie (Natalie Portman), a high-stakes poker player working the down side of a lucky streak. Apparently looking for someone to believe in, Elizabeth agrees to put up her savings as a stake so that the busted Leslie can return to the table. Like the Memphis segment, Wong’s Vegas sojourn develops into a story of missed opportunity. And it’s in that context that Lizzie/Beth returns to New York for the film’s coda, with a few grace notes that are nicely underplayed and thus unexpectedly moving.
Unfortunately, while Wong’s synthesis of western cinema traditions with a notably eastern sensibility established him as one of the most boldly contemporary of filmmakers, his take on the U.S. feels blandly traditional, from his reliance on too-familiar character stereotypes to his attachment to throwback pop/jazz artist Norah Jones as his latest muse. Slide-guitarist Ry Cooder is on the soundtrack as well, and his presence reminded me not just of the musical artists that Cooder has helped make a commercially rewarding border-crossing to America (they include Ali Farka Touré and Buena Vista Social Club) but also to the Wim Wenders film he scored, Paris, Texas. I guess it’s unfair to compare two very different films, but the difference is telling — Wenders was interested in investigating and upending some of the myths that have shaped American cultural landscapes. Wong is out to embrace and even amplify them. My Blueberry Nights has a big-hearted story, yes, but it’s fundamentally superficial.
Whatever its merits as narrative, all of this is predictably gorgeous as cinema. It’s interesting to think about what this might have looked like with Wong’s usual cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, behind the camera, but Darius Khondji is a similarly able collaborator, supply lensing William Chang Suk Ping’s production design and magnifying the melancholy mood inside Jeremy’s café by creeping around outside, catching shots lit by neon and incandescent light through windows and reflected in mirrors.
Elsewhere, it feels like Wong’s propensity toward a colorful, sensual magnificence of image undercuts his attempts to capture location or character. For instance, the tramped-up costume designs for Natalie Portman’s character are rendered with such an intense color palette that she may as well be dressed in cake and frosting; she looks like a gorgeous fairy just arrived from Candyland. That’s great news for Natalie Portman fans, but it’s hard to take such a rarefied creature seriously as a human character with human issues. On the other hand, the effectiveness of the film’s Tennessee (Williams) story is heightened by the artificial, suggestively retro style chosen for the black-clad Weisz — an angel of death, perhaps — who has never looked better on screen than she does here. But Wong’s key subject this time around is Jones’ face — her soft features, dreamy eyes, and loosely flowing hair that contrast with Portman’s pixieish angles and Weisz’s piercing stares — and Khondji’s camera gets in close as Jeremy makes his moves. In the film’s centerpiece almost-love scene, he scores a kiss that takes place in Wong’s unmistakably rapturous cinema space. It’s another angle on that place where love so often exists as rapturous stolen moments that disappear from view at once, then linger forever as memory traces. B