Judge Ben Saylor is working on a poetic film about the romantic travails of cereal box characters called My Franken Berry Nights.
How do you say goodbye to someone you can't imagine living without?
Chinese writer-director Wong Kar-wai has, for almost 20 years now, made poetic, visually stunning films of quality such as Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and 2046. In 2007, he made his first foray into English language filmmaking with My Blueberry Nights, an interesting but very flawed film that will likely disappoint fans of Wong's more recent works.
Facts of the Case
Elizabeth (Norah Jones), a young woman nursing a broken heart, finds solace at a New York café run by kindly Brit Jeremy (Jude Law, Sleuth), who's always there for Elizabeth with a warm smile and piece of blueberry pie. Over time, however, Elizabeth's romantic woes drive her to leave New York, and she heads for Memphis, where she, as a waitress by day and bartender by night, gets a front row seat for the marital troubles of alcoholic cop Arnie (David Strathairn, The Bourne Ultimatum) and his adulterous wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz, The Fountain). Eventually, Elizabeth heads west, where she befriends a deceitful gambler (Natalie Portman, The Other Boleyn Girl) with daddy issues.
My Blueberry Nights is not Wong Kar-wai's worst film to date (that distinction belongs to the inscrutable Ashes of Time), but it's certainly nothing less than a comedown after the consecutive triumphs of 2000's In the Mood for Love, 2004's 2046, and the short film Wong made as part of the Eros anthology, "The Hand." Those three films are all the work of a master of his craft (In the Mood for Love in particular is pretty much perfection; for deeper insights into that film and 2046 I recommend reading Judge Dan Mancini's insightful reviews on this site), which makes it all the more disheartening to see Wong stumble with My Blueberry Nights.
Wong is known for his loose, improvisational style of filmmaking. While that has served him in good stead in the past, his narrative for My Blueberry Nights has a lot of problems. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that a filmmaker as interested in location as Wong is would choose to make his first American film a road movie, but like Elizabeth for much of the film, the story wanders in search of nothing in particular, or at least nothing particularly noteworthy. The situations Wong places his characters in are surprisingly trite (particularly Arnie and Sue Lynne's train wreck marriage). Ironically, the most interesting story is between Jeremy and Elizabeth, and Wong and co-writer Lawrence Block (an unlikely collaborator, as he is best known for crime novels) abandon it to put her on the road, only to return to the two characters for the final minutes of the film. Of the storylines in the film, the Jeremy-Elizabeth one is the most reminiscent of the director's previous works (most obviously Chungking Express).
But even if Wong had chosen to stick with Jeremy and Elizabeth, he would have run into a brick wall due to Jones' halfhearted performance. This is Jones' first film, and I'm not sure how much to attribute to her inexperience and how much to attribute to Wong's lack of directorial guidance, but simply put, she doesn't have much screen presence, and only occasionally seems stirred by what is happening within a given scene. She's furthered hampered by Wong and Block's decision to write her as a largely passive character (particularly in the second and third acts of the film) who basically becomes an audience surrogate to the drama unfolding in each city she's living in. Perhaps Wong's past success with using singers (or at least actors who also sing) in his movies such as Tony Leung and Faye Wong made him think using Jones would work in this film, but it really doesn't.
But Jones isn't an isolated case when it comes to poor acting in My Blueberry Nights. Weisz is way too over the top as the boozy floozy running around on her husband. With the exception of a sad, lengthy monologue she delivers to Elizabeth near the end of the Memphis sequence, Weisz plays everything to the rafters, and it's awfully hard to take seriously. Maybe she felt the need to make up for Jones' excessive underplaying. Later in the movie, Portman's performance, while not overly dramatic, still managed to rub me the wrong way, partly because she doesn't seem right for the role. In addition, her character is never fully developed, plus she's a compulsive liar, so we're stuck watching an uninteresting lead and a sketchily defined, unreliable supporting character for this section of the film.
My Blueberry Nights is part of the Weinstein Company's Miriam Collection, although its special features aren't quite as substantial as other films from that label such as El Cid and Control. Still, the disc includes a decent making of featurette and an interesting interview with Wong, where he touches not only on My Blueberry Nights but several other works in his filmography. Also included are two still galleries and the film's trailer, and a truckload of trailers also play before the disc's menu. Technical specs on the disc are pretty solid; image quality in particular is very strong.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not all of the acting in My Blueberry Nights is off. Jude Law is actually very good as Jeremy, and I came away from the movie wanting more scenes with his character. I particularly liked the fact that his character saves surveillance tapes of his café and replays them when he's feeling lonely; this is one of the few moments in the movie that feels like a classic Wong touch. (Another is the bowl that customers leave keys in for their significant other to pick up.) And Law knows just how to play the character, imbuing Jeremy with a low-key friendliness and charm that barely hides his own broken heart and wistful longing for Elizabeth.
In addition, Strathairn is very good as Arnie. Strathairn is an actor who has long understood the advantage of good underplaying, and he does it well in My Blueberry Nights. He gets to deliver a great monologue (another terrific Wong moment) about being an alcoholic that is beautifully played and very powerful.
One of the chief reasons a fan of Wong will recognize this movie as being a Wong Kar-wai film is its visual style. Working with ace cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en), the film is filled with Wong's trademark time-lapse photography (used most prominently to show dessert food), slow motion scenes and incorporation of vivid color and lights. This largely translates well to his American landscapes (although the scenes with Portman's character are kind of ugly), and it's refreshing to see that with Wong's move to America he hasn't lost his sense of location and place.
Another trademark Wong element that is present in My Blueberry Nights is the skillful use of music to build atmosphere and mood. In particular, the theme song here appears to be Cat Power's terrific "The Greatest," which is employed to great effect throughout the film. (Cat Power, a. k. a. Chan Marshall, also appears in the film as Jeremy's ex-girlfriend Katya.)
Wong Kar-wai is not the first foreign filmmaker to have a bumpy transition going from his native language to an English film, and he probably won't be the last. Anyone familiar with Wong's work will certainly recognize My Blueberry Nights as one of his films, but they also will likely be let down by what they see.
The film itself is guilty, but Genius Products score some points for a decent
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• "Making My Blueberry Nights" featurette
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