Friday, July 11, 2008

Land of the Lovelorn: Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights


Along with Alfonso Cuaron and Sofia Coppola, Wong Kar Wai strikes me as one of the best directors working today. With his bright painterly use of color, slow or fast-motion shots, noir night scenes, and Godardian improvisational writing style, Wong runs a risk of letting his techniques overwhelm the story of each new film. When he made Chungking Express (1994), Wong perhaps found the best mix of crime, lovesickness, and neon-lit Hong Kong claustrophobia. Ever since, films like 2046 seem increasingly mannered and static in their beauty, testing the limits of an American audience’s short attention span.

With My Blueberry Nights (2007), his first film shot in America with English-speaking actors, Wong tries create a looser, lighter work much like Chungking Express. Both movies largely center on a place to eat, and they both combine three stories loosely strung together. Wong specializes in hopeless debasing love fixations, specifically when characters have difficulty letting go.

In My Blueberry Nights, Elizabeth (an understated Norah Jones) can’t get over the fact that her boyfriend just dumped her in New York City, so she leaves his house key at Jeremy’s (Jude Law’s) café for safekeeping. Jeremy presides over a gorgeously lit little restaurant with the camera’s point of view often looking through neon or colored glass signs. I found it refreshing to see Jude Law humble himself to a relatively minor role after his many overblown vehicles such as Sleuth, and All the King’s Men. I still like Law most in The Talented Mister Ripley, where his role as the rich playboy Dickie best suited his hyperactive (and sometimes just busy) acting style.

Jeremy comforts Elisabeth by serving her blueberry pie in the evenings, and they have symbolic conversations about the “doors closing forever” in relationships. One evening, after Elisabeth passes out on the counter, Jeremy gives her a slightly creepy kiss. Just when he’s getting up the gumption to proclaim his love, Elisabeth decides to light out to points west to learn about herself through waitressing.

Working in a Memphis restaurant, Elisabeth serves police officer Arnie (David Strathaim), who grieves because his wife (Rachel Weisz) has left him. When he’s not getting snookered in proper maudlin fashion, he threatens to shoot his wife or plunge a pool cue into her boyfriend’s face. I imagine that Elisabeth learns from them the limits of romantic obsession, but I was bothered by the relentless debasement of these Memphis characters. In this land of the lovelorn, does anyone have his or her act together?

Fortunately, by the time Elisabeth meanders out to Nevada, she runs into poker shark Leslie (a gaudy blonde Natalie Portman). Like the tough blonde-wigged drug smuggler in Chungking Express, Leslie livens things up. She likes to bet it all in Texas Hold’em, exploit Elisabeth for a “stake” when she loses, and cruise around in her Jaguar convertible. She says “Trust anyone, but always cut the cards,” and her mix of bravado and deception contrasts sharply with the histrionics of the scenes in Memphis. The role is so extremely different for Portman, she seems to enjoy her line-readings, and it seems a shame that she too needs to learn life lessons about the limits of her poker smarts.

Wong has made a gorgeous film with Norah Jones’ music playing in the background, but there’s something bizarre about his version of America. Where are the ads, the household clutter, the conversations about contemporary life? Wong’s hyper-aestheticized vision of the US floats on its deep reds and green-lit subways speeding by in slow motion at night. His depiction of Memphis is more an idea than a specific place, and the cultural disconnect sometimes leaves the actors lacking the sense of being grounded.

In the end, My Blueberry Nights works best as an experiment in style--an aesthetic transplant-- but when it comes to its characters I prefer Leslie’s rebellious spark to all of the mythologized heartbreak.

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