Dir: Wong Kar Wai. 2007. US. 111mins
Life is as plaintive and banal as a country western ballad in My Blueberry Nights. Wong Kar Wai's English-language debut may have all the trappings of an American road movie but at the core it is a characteristically dreamy exploration of love, loss and the sad ache of the broken-hearted.
Retaining the languor but stripped of the exoticism that helped to attract an art-house audience to In The Mood For Love or Happy Together, it winds up feeling much less special and even veers towards the mundane.
Striking moments and strong performances, especially from David Strathairn, are the compensations in a film that is likely to receive a decidedly cool critical reception. Wong Kar Wai aficionados will consider it a disappointment that almost feels like a greatest hits revisited project.
The American settings and star names may help nudge the film more towards the mainstream and create a modest international audience among incurable romantics although they will need to be possessed of a patient nature. It is certainly more approachable and more marketable than 2046.
Songstress Norah Jones makes a respectable acting debut as Elizabeth. Reeling from the end of a five-year relationship, she takes sanctuary in a New York cafe owned by Englishman Jeremy (Jude Law). He provides her with blueberry pie and a sympathetic ear as they share stories about the meaning of life and their experiences of love, pain and being human. Elizabeth subsequently takes to the road, working as a waitress and barmaid and meeting a number of individuals who prove to have suffered more than her.
The strongest story comes in the mid-section as lovelorn policeman Arnie (David Strathairn) nightly loses himself in alcoholic oblivion to anaesthetise the pain of his terminal estrangement from wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz).
Strathairn brings a typical authority and substance to his role, creating an immensely sympathetic figure and an emotional connection with the audience that is not necessarily achieved by all the characters. There are shades of Thelma And Louise as Elizabeth later hits the road with high-stakes poker player Leslie (Natalie Portman) who takes many more risks at the gaming table than she ever does in life.
All of these encounters seem designed to teach the naïve Elizabeth vital lessons in love and life. Wong Kar Wai frames and presents them in a style that has become his signature. That means blood-red neon, characters who drift into view as they make slow-motion strides through public places and bleak heartache in claustrophobic settings (bars, casinos, restaurants etc) where it is impossible to tell whether it is day or night.
The jangling guitars of the Ry Cooder soundtrack suggest a link to Paris , Texas whilst the glittering neon lights and artificiality of some of the Las Vegas settings suggest Francis Ford Coppola's One From The Heart.
Working in collaboration with crime writer Lawrence Block, Wong Kar Wai has created a screenplay with some wit and charm but those qualities are not enough to overcome the sheer lack of originality in some of the romantic stories. He basically reiterates the moral of all his earlier work: that love makes the world go around and loneliness brings it to a shuddering halt.
Wong Kar Wai does manage to secure some fine performances from the starry cast with Jude Law at his most animated and appealing, even if he does seem to be sporting Sean Bean's accent. Natalie Portman also displays more spirit and conviction than she has brought to recent
projects like Goya's Ghosts. Rachel Weisz brings fire to the role of the seemingly callous wife, even if she seems deliberately to have been recast in the mould of a Gong Li with her figure-hugging dress, wayward hair and air of simmering danger.
Jones seems something of a sulky, colourless presence at the beginning of the film but her passivity serves the story and she appears to grow in confidence and presence throughout the film. Ultimately, fans attracted by her soulful music success are likely to be more satisfied with the film than Wong Kar Wai regulars.
Jet Tone Films
Jacky Pang Yee Wah
Wong Kar Wai
Chan Ye Cheng
Wong Kar Wai
William Chang Suk Ping