Movie Review – My Blueberry Nights (2008)
by HELEN GEIB
There are three groups of people in the world. The first is enraptured by the films of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. The second has seen some number of his films and is baffled by the first group’s fervent partisanship. The third group, by far the largest, is asking right about now, “who’s Wong Kar-Wai?” My fellow enthusiasts hardly require my encouragement to see My Blueberry Nights, Wong’s latest (and first American) film. I will instead urge my readers in the third group to go ahead, give it a try. You might like it, and if you do, there are some wonderful, wonderful films waiting for you to discover them.
Whether it was by intention or only a happy byproduct, My Blueberry Nights is tailor made to introduce English-speaking, occasional filmgoers to Wong’s work. It was filmed, in English, in America. It stars high profile American and English talent, several of them also fine actors: Norah Jones; Jude Law; Rachel Weisz; David Strathairn; and Nathalie Portman. It belongs to that beloved of American film genres, the road movie. It looks fantastic. It is a pleasant, light entertainment.
The story is a series of three vignettes connected by Jones’s character, Elizabeth. The first story is about Elizabeth and Jeremy, a New York City cafe owner played by Law. Elizabeth (going by Lizzie) is a witness to the second story, set in Tennessee and featuring Strathairn as a man on an alcohol-fueled downward spiral and Weisz as his estranged wife. Elizabeth (now going by Beth) is a mixture of witness and participant in the Nevada-set third story, when she stakes Portman’s professional gambler with the gambler’s car as collateral.
In classic road movie fashion, Elizabeth’s physical journey is catalyst and metaphor for her spiritual journey. The genre is a good fit for Wong’s thematic preoccupations. His films are mood pieces that explore the emotions surrounding loss, usually romantic, and recovery- or at least the continuation of life. My Blueberry Nights finds Wong in an unexpectedly mellow mood. Elizabeth’s story is infused with a gentle optimism attuned to the American religion of second chances, reinvention, wide open spaces, and readiness to gamble on the next hand. For her and most of the characters, loss is followed by recovery, halting and protracted though it may be, not just continuation.
Mirroring the change from a foreign tongue to English in the dialogue, the filmic grammar has also been normalized. The story is entirely linear and straightforward. My Blueberry Nights has none of the challenging narrative complexity of Wong’s other films, and only one tiny scene even hints at his penchant for fractured timelines.
Wong’s incomparable visual style, on the other hand, is on full display. His work has always been a feast for the eyes (and ears) and My Blueberry Nights is no exception. The camera’s adaptation to the distinct landscapes and light of the three settings leads to an arresting variety of effects as one gorgeous image succeeds another through the film.
It will be evident from all this that I enjoyed My Blueberry Nights and am recommending it, but my recommendation is qualified by factors more significant than the dopey title. The artificiality of the dialogue sometimes intrudes on the flow of the storytelling. I do not intend a blanket condemnation; the film is deliberately non-naturalistic and that includes the dialogue. The problem is that while some of the speeches work, others do not. Part of that failure stems from the disparity in acting ability among the cast, and that leads to my second, and more serious, criticism.
Norah Jones is not an actress. It seems probable that she was cast because Wong loves her face. It is probable that all of the principals were cast for that same reason. This is a movie of lingering close-ups and artfully staged tableaux. Nevertheless, Jones is called on to act. The way she is used in the film diminishes, but cannot entirely overcome the effect of her stilted performance. Oddly enough, her limitations as an actress are most apparent in the segment in which she has the least to do. Strathairn and Weisz are exceptional actors and it is as if their mastery of the craft highlights Jones’s inexperience even when she has only to feed them lines.
2 1/2 stars