Awkward sparks

My Blueberry Nights
France, 2007

Directed By: Wong Kar-wai
Written By: Wong Kar-wai & Lawrence Block
Starring: Norah Jones, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Natalie Portman
Running Time: 90 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including violence, drinking and smoking
2.5 out of 5 stars

My Blueberry Nights approaches the viewer like an awkward lover, desperate to please but unsure of what to do. At times it is sensual and alluring, a delicious cinematic confection for the senses, but suddenly it becomes clumsy and inexperienced, placing its hands in all the wrong places and whispering words that induce giggling rather than titillation. You will either be enraptured with it in spite of its faults or you will be turned off completely by its graceless advances. I could only entertain the films fleeting charms for so long, however, before becoming irrevocably irritated with it.

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai has always been something of an indie darling, his recent films In the Mood For Love and 2046 playing well to scores of grumpy critics in Cannes and Venice, as well as developing cultish followings among fans enamored with his sensual visual style and obtuse meditations on eroticism. My Blueberry Nights marks his English language debut as well as the debut of singer-songstress Norah Jones, and the words that came unbidden to my mind for both of them were “Don’t quit your day job.”

Jones plays Elizabeth, a jilted New Yorker who wanders into the same greasy spoon whenever her love life hits a pothole. Jeremy (Jude Law), the rakishly handsome proprietor of said greasy spoon, might be the reason for her repeat visits. Either that or the blueberry pie, which she eats copious helpings of at every opportunity. The two connect over their shared love of pastries, and the titular pie becomes a metaphor for their mutual loneliness and isolation. Law is effortlessly charming as always, but Jones’ performance pales miserably in comparison. Her delivery jerks and stumbles, and it’s difficult to tell if it’s the script, Kar-wai’s directing, or Jones’ acting chops that contribute to the painfully clunky opening ten minutes. It’s likely a combination of all three, and while the film improves over time, its initial face-plant is nearly impossible to recover from.

Elizabeth takes her leave of the starry eyed diner cook and embarks on a soul-searching road trip across a postcard-ian American landscape, touching down in Memphis and flirting with Las Vegas before returning to Jeremy’s blueberry stained lips in New York. The film employs a staccato vignette style, tying each sequence together with the loosest of narrative threads (for all intents and purposes you’re watching 3 separate short films rather than a cohesive full-length feature). Each location brings its own set of tragi-characters, with A-listers David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, and Natalie Portman filling in opposite Jones’ everygirl. All are dealing with love and loss in some shape or form and each provides Elizabeth with afterschool life lessons. Jones’ acting mellows out and becomes tolerable throughout these latter acts, although this likely has more to do with her reduced role as a sounding board for the supporting characters than anything else.

And though I’ve harped quite a bit on Miss Jones, she isn’t the deal breaker that I’ve led you to believe. The real problem lies with the portrait of America that Kar-wai is painting, which lacks any semblance of realism. Of course, cinema exists to redefine reality, so my gripes have nothing to do with the fact that Kar-wai is reinterpreting American life, but rather with the lens through which he has chosen to reinterpret: the soap opera. My Blueberry Nights is what you would get if you took All My Children, added a top shelf cast, and upped the production values. Kar-wai has dipped his brush into a bucket of Melodrama and coated every single frame with liberal gobs of the stuff. You’ve got drunken barflies, pouting adulterers, and deathbed phone calls, portrayed with all the subtlety of a frying pan to the kisser. I desperately tried to hold on, but once Rachel Weisz entered Drunken Hissy Mode over her alcoholic husband’s suicide, all benefit of the doubt went out the window, and the rest of the film was one eye-rolling dollop of treacle after another.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji (The City of Lost Children, Se7en), however, does beautiful work here, as always. The opening shot is of vanilla ice cream melting into warm blueberry pie, and the rest of the film retains the style and flavor of that quintessential slice of Americana. The characters are framed in soft, luscious light, with moody blues and reds and yellows infusing the diners and bars and casinos that they reside within, and Khondji’s work is almost worth the price of admission alone. Almost.

My experience with My Blueberry Nights reminded me most of Across the Universe, another film I tried equally hard to like. They’re both ambitious, they both contain swaths of cinematic beauty, they both try so very very hard to please you, and they both have legions of flaws. However, they also each contain a mysterious spark that can light a burning torch of ardent admiration within the right person. My Blueberry Nights felt more like being entombed inside a candy-coated version of Days of Our Lives than a delectable love affair, but your mileage may vary. She is an awkward lover, but perhaps she’ll light your fire.

About the Author:
Evan Derrick loves movies, loves talking about movies, and even makes them from time to time. In the rare moment when movies aren’t consuming his grey matter, he enjoys eating grilled cheese sandwiches, playing with his baby daughter, and pretending to be the senior editor for Use the Tulsa Today search feature to read previous reviews by this author.