It seemed sadly inevitable that Wong Kar Wai’s first American film, starring songstress and first-time actress Norah Jones, alongside the consistently mediocre Jude Law, would be a disappointment compared to his earlier, Hong Kong-based work. Billed as a romantic road trip that explores ‘the distance between heartbreak and a new beginning’, My Blueberry Nights is a flimsy, saccharine confection that suffers from a weak script, trite dialogue and miscast actors.
In its favour, the acclaimed director’s first English-language feature does echo some of his earlier films, such as the excellent Chungking Express. His continued fascination with the nocturnal city as a symbol of alienation and loneliness is both evocative and visually striking, his actors framed by the lush hues of neon lights, reflected in the surfaces of the bars and diners in which his characters exist. However, while it may be beautiful to look at, My Blueberry Nights lacks the spontaneity and subtlety of his earlier films, while the dynamism that actors like Tony Leung, the late Leslie Cheung and Faye Wong – a singer like Norah Jones – lent them is sadly missing from this latest work.
Jones plays Elizabeth, a young woman living in New York who’s just discovered that her boyfriend has been seeing another woman. She finds solace in a café run by Jeremy (Jude Law), a charismatic expat from Manchester. Night after night, Elizabeth sits on a stool at the counter, seeking answers for her loneliness and betrayal. Jeremy, with his own story of heartbreak, feeds her banal philosophies and blueberry pie as consolation. Just as he predictably begins to fall for her, Elizabeth decides to set off across America in an attempt to ease her heartache, waitressing along the way. She encounters one miscast actor after another as she travels from New York to Nevada, with the exception of David Strathairn, who plays a cop down on his luck, drinking away his sorrows in a bar in Memphis, trying to forget his Southern bombshell of an ex-wife, played by the vampy Rachel Weisz.
Strathairn’s performance is the only one in the film that feels both natural and credible. He has a screen presence that the other actors, despite their A-list status, all seem to lack, and one that even further diminishes Jones’ acting capabilities. She may be a talented singer, but on-screen she’s incapable of conveying emotion, instead seeming listless and aloof from her own role in the film. As she travels from Memphis to Nevada, it becomes increasingly difficult to empathise with her journey from one lonely figure to another, all typically seeking some kind of redemption. In a seedy, third-rate casino, she meets a tough-talking, peroxide-blonde gambler, somewhat unconvincingly played by Natalie Portman, who, estranged from her dying father, buries her own sorrows in poker chips. Adultery, alcohol, gambling – they’re commonplace vices that should have been handled by the filmmaker with greater subtlety and dexterity, and much less banality.
While the film is visually enticing, most of the actors seem to have been cast for their fame and looks rather than their abilities. They simply aren’t strong enough to salvage the predictable, insubstantial script, co-written by Wong and Lawrence Block, who’s better known for his crime novels than his screenplays. Nothing more than a light piece of entertainment, My Blueberry Nights is a minor footnote in Wong Kar Wai’s brilliant body of work.