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Oeuvre: Wong Kar-wai: My Blueberry Nights

Oeuvre: Wong Kar-wai: My Blueberry Nights

The film feels like old standards reimagined by a Wong Kar-wai cover band.

Wong Kar-wai is such an engrossing filmmaker that even his failures are endlessly fascinating. My Blueberry Nights, his sole English language feature, is unquestionably the worst film he’s ever made. But it’s also the one I find myself revisiting the most. While setting Happy Together largely in Argentina gave Wong the opportunity to shift his gaze to new environs, traversing America from New York City to Las Vegas handicaps his vision, trapping it in a faux inspirational travelogue only a few steps removed from something like Eat Pray Love.

The premise is par for Wong’s CV, stitching a medley of lovelorn narratives together using an eatery and a heartbroken road trip as the unifying tether. It all starts with Jude Law’s Jeremy and his humble little café in New York. A woman named Elizabeth (Norah Jones) comes looking for her boyfriend and discerns from Jeremy that her beau has been unfaithful. They begin a friendly kind of collusion, based around listening and eating blueberry pie. Just as this plutonic dalliance begins to evolve, Elizabeth ends things with her boyfriend and leaves the city, embarking on a journey to figure out who she is and what she wants. She keeps in touch with Jeremy through postcards and he works tirelessly to find her but she’s always moved onto the next destination.

Along the way Elizabeth tries on different personas like new coats. In Memphis, she’s Lizzie, waitressing in a diner by day and a dive bar by night. Here, she encounters Arnie (David Strathairn). At night, he’s a drunk who treats every night as a celebration for his last night of drinking, pockets stuffed with AA chips. He frequents her diner in the mornings during his day job as a cop. Arnie’s been lost ever since his wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz) moved on to a younger, presumably more sober mate. Their mutual dysfunction is reminiscent of the central couple from Happy Together, but their fate is more tragic.

She makes her way out to Vegas working in a casino (here, as Beth) and befriends a professional card shark named Leslie, played by Natalie Portman. Their paths cross at the intersection of the women’s confluent needs. Elizabeth needs to buy a car and Leslie needs a stake to get revenge on a smug poker player. Along the way, Leslie’s faltering relationship with her father comes into play and Elizabeth finally makes her way back out to New York to reunite with Jeremy.

At times, the film feels like old standards reimagined by a Wong Kar-wai cover band. The loping camera movements and the evocative imagery remain, alongside the nostalgic lilt of the intermittent narration. It just doesn’t come together to form more than the sum of its parts. Much of this has to do with the film’s dialogue. Crime novelist Lawrence Block co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Wong and this is the first of his films to truly have a locked in blueprint on the page. Block does an incredible job of grafting Wong’s authorial style onto a listenable American vernacular, but the translation cheapens the singular beauty of his words.

Wong’s films tend to be light on banter, but when characters do talk, they sound less like real life people and more like students in a poetry workshop, offering one another platitude disguised as rough draft stanzas. This style functions so much better when not spoken in your own language, because the clunky irregularity of the speech patterns is masked by the romantic mystery of a foreign tongue. Watching with subtitles, you process the words as written on the screen, but hearing some of these lines aloud reduces them to near parodies. This disparity is echoed when Elizabeth explains why she prefers sending Jeremy postcards to phone calls. She says that some things are better on paper.

It also doesn’t help that, despite a splendid supporting cast, the film is led by an unproven star. Up until one of Norah Jones’ own songs comes on the film’s needle-drop soundtrack, her performance merely seems underwhelming when matched with her more seasoned co-stars. But once you hear her singing voice, the vast chasm between her musical ability and acting chops becomes clear, and every scene relying on her as an anchor feels more stilted and wooden than any exchange in a Wong Kar-wai film ought to be. Even when Jones’ questionable casting isn’t hindering the film from blossoming, the Western storytelling refuses to mesh with Wong’s inherent tone. Strathairn and Weisz are capable players, but watching their histrionic back-and-forth feels embarrassing compared to the kind of work Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung have delivered in past Wong films. Here, the tension lying under the surface doesn’t bubble so much as rupture.

The film falters in a lot of important places, but My Blueberry Nights still possesses the hypnotic power of its predecessors. The vivid visuals are still there, like the sumptuous, sensuous close up of ice cream melting into a crumbled slice of pie. The use of music remains as sharp as ever. Seriously, all due respect to Pretty in Pink but this film houses the single greatest use of an Otis Redding song in film history. Also, Norah Jones is counterbalanced nicely by a small, but crucial performance by Chan Marshall (of Cat Power fame) as Jeremy’s ex. She’s only given a few minutes of screen time, but she walks away with the whole movie.

Even here on the other side of the world, Wong Kar-wai flirts with the same preoccupations. He’s concerned with time and how it inevitably erodes meaningful connections. He still loves following isolated people caught in tragic, recursive loops. Exploring these recurring motifs in America could have led to one of his most inventive films yet. Seeing his repetitive themes play out against the backdrop of car culture and desert roads feels right and gives hope for something amazing. Instead, it remains a disappointing curio, but one that packs an emotional wallop.

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