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Daze of Being

Wong Kar-Wei Floats Back To Earth With His First English-Language Movie

DAYS OF BEING WILD: Norah Jones and Natalie Portman Look Great.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/7/2008

A woman walks into a café looking for her boyfriend, discovers he's been two-timing her, and suddenly decides her life needs change. It's the sort of cliché movie setup Chinese director Wong Kar-Wei has turned into hypnotic meditations on life and love over the past 20 years. That's his movie magic: turning the typical people, places, and things found in movies--themselves a slightly better than real version of reality--and amplifying the movieness of it all, making everybody more lovely, every drop of sweat more aqueous, every ceiling fan more symbolic, every plot point more moving, more glamorous, more episodic, and somehow more complete. He invests these moments with such emotional and visual heaviness that his oblique plots and obtuse characters still add up to swelling, symphonic filmmaking.

Wong's cinematic sleight of hand runs afoul of its first rough patch in My Blueberry Nights, his ninth feature and first in English. Elizabeth (Norah Jones) is that woman searching for her boyfriend; the English Jeremy (Jude Law) is the charming New York café owner who unknowingly reveals the boyfriend's duplicity. Over the next night and day--or more: time, as is Wong's wont, being typically opaque here--Liz (as she eventually introduces herself) stops by the café to talk with Jeremy, before finally leaving the city in search of herself.

Yes, My Blueberry Nights is a road movie, taking Liz first to Memphis--where her sleepless nights find her working in a diner by day and a bar after dark, where she meets a melodramatically separated couple: a police officer (David Strathairn) still pining for his wife (Rachel Weisz)--and on to Nevada and Las Vegas, where a professional gambler (Natalie Portman) teaches her a thing or two about truth by being a pathological liar. Throughout, Liz sends postcards back to Jeremy, and he tries, in vain, to track her down.

Something is amiss, though, through all the romantic longing, reflective voice-overs, and casually inserted flashbacks: Blueberry doesn't accrue the sort of emotional momentum Wong's movies snowball into, and it's difficult to pinpoint why. Yes, parts of Wong's vision of America feel informed entirely by Tom Waits, country and western, and R&B songs, Edward Hopper paintings, and road stories themselves, but artificiality isn't a new weakness for him.

Besides, so much of Blueberry is textbook Wong, those perfectly imperfect moments that don't clarify anything but feel so emotionally pertinent. Jeremy keeps a fishbowl of keys in his café, which people have left there; he doesn't throw them away because it's not his choice to leave such doors forever locked, and during these early scenes Wong shoots Jeremy and Liz from outside looking into the café's windows, as if they were things lost inside a different aquarium. Weisz unspools an overwrought monologue that contains one sliver of honesty--"We tried to drink our way back to love, but it never made sense in the morning"--that situates her character more than everything else Wong dresses her in. Title cards occasionally pop up as incidental signposts on Liz's adventure--"Day 185 3,906 miles since NY"--with that "since" being the key wrinkle, tracking distance in terms of time. Plus, Blueberry looks amazing, thanks to peerless Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji and his sensuous gifts for shadow and color.

In fact, everything about Blueberry adds up to a Wong movie save the cast. And maybe, after spending years being seduced by the wet eyes of Wong's too beautifully wounded for words leads---such as any combination of Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung--staring at each other with faces silently speaking unfathomable depths, watching Jones and Law try to do the same merely feels too much like the familiar. That familiarity touches almost every part of the cast--Portman rocks a bottle-blond job that makes her look like Annette Bening in The Grifters, Weisz overacts like she's trying out for all the female leads in the Tennessee Williams canon, and Chan Marshall shows up speaking in her natural burr that practically smells of the Deep South--while Jones, through whose eyes we primarily see this journey, never becomes more than a beguiling surface.

In one of Liz's postcards, she tells Jeremy that she likes treating the new people she meets as mirrors, to "define us and tell us who we are," and that she's starting to like her reflection a little more each time she does. But seeing the reflection of American movies in Nights, an influence that has always been in Wong's work, never becomes transcendent, never gets transformed into that special something else that marks his finest alchemy. My Blueberry Nights isn't a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, merely an ordinary art-house romance. It'd be a minor triumph for most filmmakers, but it's a frustrating disappointment from the man responsible for crafting so many haunting spells that invade sleep.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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