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My Blueberry Nights

A Misfire Any Way You Cut It

Eleven months after its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, cineastes and critics in the United States are finally getting the chance to check out My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-Wai’s (2046, In the Mood for Love, Fallen Angels) first film in English. Collaborating with an English-speaking cast (one Brit, the rest Americans), crime novelist Lawrence Block as his co-writer, cinematographer Darius Khondji (The Ruins, The Beach, Se7en), and musician Ry Cooder (Buena Vista Social Club, Paris, Texas), My Blueberry Nights seemed poised for critical acclaim and audience appreciation.

My Blueberry Nights’ central character, Elizabeth (Norah Jones), is a lovelorn, heartbroken young woman living in Manhattan who’s just discovered her boyfriend cheating on her. Incapable of moving on or recognizing that a local café owner, Jeremy (Jude Law), is totally into her, Elizabeth leaves abruptly, first settling in Memphis, where she pulls waitressing gigs in a generic diner and a seedy bar, respectively. Working so much lets her forget her ex-boyfriend and save up for a used car. At the bar, she meets Arnie Copeland (David Strathairn), an alcoholic cop who still obsesses over his soon-to-be-ex-wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). After one too many tragedies, Elizabeth moves on.

We next meet up with her in a mid-level casino in Nevada working as a waitress again. There, she looks in on a poker game. While most of the card players ignore her, one, Leslie (Natalie Portman), treats Elizabeth with a modicum of respect. After losing everything, though, Leslie approaches Elizabeth with a proposition: lend her two grand. If Leslie wins, she gets her money back and a third of Leslie’s winnings. If Leslie loses, Elizabeth gets to keep her car. Meanwhile, Jeremy continues to pine away for Elizabeth -- saving the occasional postcard (which we hear via sporadic voiceover narration, none of it profound or insightful) -- and tries to track her down.

Performance wise, Norah Jones’ singularly expressive singing voice doesn’t translate into anything approaching a distinctive speaking voice. Jones’ line deliveries are, by turns, flat, uninspired, uncertain, and unenergetic, all marks of a novice, first-time actress. It almost seems cruel to criticize Jones’ for her less-than-stellar performance. After all, this is Jones’ first significant role and, more importantly, it was Wong Kar-Wai who actively sought her participation in My Blueberry Nights. Frankly, Wong Kar-Wai should have known better. At minimum, Jones needed more coaching or instruction to get her performance up to a professional level. She’s helped, somewhat, by Jude Law and Natalie Portman (neither stretching nor challenging themselves here, though).

Unfortunately, My Blueberry Nights is centered on self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-centered characters stumbling around in a purposeless, directionless, maudlin, ultimately unsatisfying storyline. Kar-Wai and Block stuff My Blueberry Nights full of indie-film clichés (and add nothing to them): the alienated characters, the broken hearts, the meaningless jobs, the search for meaning, the need to establish or reestablish viable personal and romantic relationships, and an outer journey that signals the central character’s inner growth and eventual transformation into an all-around, better (i.e., less neurotic) character.

Of course, we’ve seen similarly themed films before and, frankly, we’ll see it again by another filmmaker who thinks he has something to say about the human condition and romantic love, but hopefully, next time, it’ll be with more energy, inventiveness, and (genuine) emotion than the painfully shallow, uninspired effort Wong Kar-Wai mustered in My Blueberry Nights. Let’s hope Wong Kar-Wai got the United States (and English) out of his system with this film and returns to form with his next effort.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars