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Friday, March 21, 2008

'My Blueberry Nights'

Days of being dull

What in the world has happened to Wong Kar-wai? The freshest, most effortlessly cool man in cinema since the mid-1990s, Wong seems to be floundering at the moment. For a director whose style once seemed all about being free, off-the-cuff, jammed out, and playful, his most recent flicks show every sign of simply relying on what worked before.

My Blueberry Nights Rating: (2 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Jude Law and Norah Jones in "My Blueberry Nights" © BLOCK 2 PICTURES 2006

Director: Wong Kar-wai
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 22, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

When I reviewed Wong's last film (and his first failure), "2046," it struck me as "a maddeningly self-referential remix" of his work so far. At least in "2046" that seemed to be the point — playing with old ideas and attempting a sort of summation.

Wong's latest, "My Blueberry Nights" — which is also his first film in English — will also give you the feeling you've been here before. Wong's impulse to make the film was a desire to work with songstress Norah Jones; taking a non-actor pop-star and eliciting a charming performance worked for Wong before, big-time, in 1995's "Chungking Express," which starred Hong Kong singer Faye Wong.

Lightning doesn't strike the same place twice, however, and "My Blueberry Nights" seems like a blatant attempt to repackage Wong's earlier glories in an English-language format for subtitle-abhoring U.S. audiences.

Even more saddening is what a nonpresence Jones turns out to be on the big screen. Such an evocative voice on her albums, so full of the romantic melancholy that is the lifeblood of Wong's films . . . yet she winds up as a mousy little character who spends most of the film observing other people's stories. The problem is mainly down to the script, but still, put Jones up against costar Rachel Weisz, and the latter just eats her for breakfast.

Set in New York City, "My Blueberry Nights" begins with a young woman named Elizabeth (Jones) storming into a cafe run by Jeremy (Jude Law); she's just been dumped by her lover, who's found someone else, and she takes the keys to his apartment and deposits them in a jar Jeremy keeps behind the counter, full of such forsaken keys.

She visits Jeremy's cafe a few times, asking about the keys and eating blueberry pie, the pie that Jeremy never seems to be able to sell, but bakes anyway. (Cue allegory here.) Rather than notice he's obviously smitten with her, Elizabeth travels across the country to get her head together.

She stops in Memphis, gets work as a barmaid, and meets an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) who's tormented by his unfaithful wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz), a creature straight out of a Tennessee Williams tale. After observing their implosion, Elizabeth moves on to Nevada, where she meets a savvy card-shark named Leslie (Natalie Portman), who has issues with her father.

Meanwhile, back in NYC, Jeremy pines for Elizabeth, endlessly replaying the security camera tapes from the nights she came for his pie. He's the film's weakest character: Law seems to have based his performance entirely on Takeshi Kaneshiro in "Fallen Angels" and "Chungking Express." No surprise, considering Kaneshiro's character collected pineapple cans as a metaphor for romantic hope in "Chungking," and fixated on video tapes of his dad in "Fallen Angels." Kaneshiro's spineless cuteness worked in those films — though he almost over-egged it in "Angels" — but he was 21, and virtually a nonactor. Law is 38, and obviously trying hard, and it is far less becoming.

The story never really goes anywhere, and the vagueness of the film's central character, Elizabeth, makes for a big hollow core. As usual for a Wong film, it does look and sound great. Cinematographer Darius Khondji sits in for longtime Wong collaborator Chris Doyle and manages a decent approximation of his style, all hypersaturated colors and reflected neon.

The soundtrack conjures up atmosphere with the keening slide guitar of Ry Cooder, but this only serves to remind you that Wim Wenders has covered this territory before, and better, in "Paris, Texas". There are some poignant pieces by Cat Power and Gustavo Santolalla, but even on the soundtrack, Wong's efforts seem halfhearted. He'll take a brilliantly atmospheric piece like Cassandra Wilson's cover of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," but it's lyrical content ("I want to see you dance again") bears no relation whatsoever to the scene it's matched to.

The one area in which Wong's movie does succeed is in accurately depicting "chick logic." Try the film's scenario from a guy's perspective: Girlfriend dumps him, guy is steamed, walks into a bar where the hot-hot-hot waitress is obviously attracted to him. Guy thinks "awesome," scores on the rebound, and lives happily ever after, secretly smirking at how miffed his ex will be.

Chick logic involves spending a year traveling cross-country watching even more screwed-up relationships to come to the same conclusion and realize, "Hey, Jude Law, not a bad idea."

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