Movie Review: My Blueberry Nights
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"My Blueberry Nights" isn't eye candy; it's a drool-worthy slice of eye pie. The film entices with a handful of images that could only come from a visual spellbinder. My favorite is very brief: A Nevada desert long shot of two cars diverging onto two different stretches of highway, one driven by Norah Jones, the other by Natalie Portman, photographed by Darius Khondji with exquisite sunset melancholy.
Every second of this film, the first in English by Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai, looks beautiful. And before long a terrible thing happens: The beauty of it ceases to matter. Only in flashes does Wong make you forget about the relentless, meticulous beauty long enough to lose yourself inside it.
Like Antonioni trying to make sense of America in "Zabriskie Point" (1970), the comparatively larky "My Blueberry Nights" finds Wong on the road, searching for love and meaning along with his protagonist. The singer Norah Jones is the generically conceived Elizabeth, recently split from her boyfriend. Just before fleeing Manhattan to find herself, she befriends a comely Manchester lad who runs a diner somewhere in Manhattan.
Jude Law plays the pie-slinger confidant, who isn't really a character; he's male availability incarnate, attractively brokenhearted himself. In his diner he keeps a big glass bowl of keys left behind by customers, representing pasts that cannot be reclaimed. As one dreamer bemoans in Wong's epic visual poem "2046," which truly is a sight to behold: "Why can't it be like it was before?"
Elizabeth's three-part odyssey begins in New York before jumping to Memphis. There, the heroine meets a lovelorn drunk of a cop played by David Strathairn, whose ex is played by a hootin', hollerin', genuinely bad-actin' Rachel Weisz, in her first poor screen performance. Then it's on to what appears to be Reno, where Elizabeth meets her spiritual doppelganger, a rootless gambler played by Portman. No one in "My Blueberry Nights" sounds comfortable saying the things they say. The film may be set in America, and shot in America, and co-written with Wong by Lawrence Block. But its creamy abstractions, both visual and verbal, become a perceptual blur. When Law tells Jones (who may be a ripe camera subject but isn't yet an actress) the story behind a certain set of keys, he answers her query about what happened with, "Life happened. Things happened. Time happened. That's pretty much always the case, more or less." Kuh-lunk.
Wong has trimmed his picture about 15 minutes since its Cannes Film Festival premiere, excising a prologue set in Santa Monica and various atmospheric flourishes. "My Blueberry Nights" is no less frustrating now in its 90-minute form: The film remains an extended atmospheric flourish. A scrappier, quicker-witted affair, along the lines of Wong's engaging "Chungking Express," might've activated these archetypes. On large canvases and small, few filmmakers can capture the ache of nostalgia and the yearning for beauty the way Wong can. In his richly saturated compositions, Wong sets his characters just so - isolated in a shadowy hallway, or bathed in neon - so that the decor in the background becomes one with the emotional longing in the foreground. When it works, it's magic. And when it doesn't, it's "My Blueberry Nights."
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material including violence, drinking and smoking).
Running time: 1:30.
Starring: Norah Jones (Elizabeth); Jude Law (Jeremy); David Strathairn (Arnie); Rachel Weisz (Sue Lynne); Natalie Portman (Leslie).
Directed by Wong Kar-Wai; written by Wong and Lawrence Block; photographed by Darius Khondji; editing and production design by William Chang Suk Ping; music by Ry Cooper; produced by Wong, Jacky Pang and Yee Wah. A Weinstein Company release.