23 April 2008

CANDY SHELL

I think it's fair to argue that Wong Kar-Wai makes the most distinctive films in the history of narrative cinema. So to call My Blueberry Nights a Wong Kar-Wai film is a fair bit of description all by itself. On the other hand, My Blueberry Nights is also, by a pretty healthy margin, the worst Wong Kar-Wai film I've personally seen, with all of the intoxicating headiness of 2046 and the aching romanticism of In the Mood for Love replaced by something altogether fluffier. Like the pies that give the film its title, My Blueberry Nights is really just a dessert, something sweet and mostly insubstantial, and likely to give you canker sores if you indulge a little bit too often.

Such a rich dessert, though: I can't remember the last movie that was this drop-dead gorgeous. For the first time since his debut, As Tears Go By, Wong is working without Christopher Doyle as his director of photography, but he got a replacement who is awfully good: Darius Khondji, whose work tends to be a bit grittier than this, but who makes the transition into the director's candy-colored world of nonstop glamour shots with flying colors. It's not the film that Doyle would have shot and we can spend the rest of our lives debating whether that's good or bad, but taken for what it is, My Blueberry Nights is exactly what you'd expect it to be: every single shot in the movie has something about it that's just plain beautiful, enough so that looking at the movie is an endlessly wonderful experience, irrespective of "watching" it.

As for "watching" it, now...

The acidic response the movie received at the 2007 Cannes festival is entirely disproportionate (and reminiscent of the almost as harsh response that 2046 got in 2004). It might not have been the best film in competition that year (it might have even been the worst; 2007 had an exceptionally strong Official Selection). But it's hardly that bad; it's only real sin - and this is, certainly, a sin that marks very nearly every second of the movie - is that it's extraordinarily aimless. That, and it's got some weak acting, but I'll get back to that.

Here's what happens: a young woman, Elizabeth (singer Norah Jones in her first, and by her own words, final acting appearance), wanders late one night into a New York diner looking for her ex-boyfriend, and over a slice of untouched blueberry pie discusses life with the owner, Jeremy (Jude Law). For the next few weeks this becomes a ritual, and the audience (being aware that lush romanticism is the natural order of all things in Wong Kar-Wai's cinema) sees that she has fallen in love with him; but before she can face this, still suffering from the messy break-up, she must travel America to find herself. First she goes to Memphis, where as a bartender and diner waitress she meets the tragically lonely drunk Arnie (David Strathairn) and his put-upon estranged wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). Finding their situation too stressful to cope with, she journeys on to Nevada and meets the tragically lonely poker player Leslie (Natalie Portman), and the two women sort of by default become each others' only friend.

There's not a single thing wrong with a movie like this taking its time and letting the Americana flow, even though we know from an extremely early point where things are going (when they get there, we are treated to a kissing scene that instantly becomes one of the iconic moments in Wong's career). What's wrong is that the vision of America on display is a profoundly flat one. I can't imagine that it's just the director's lack of familiarity with the country - his previous films have drifted pretty far from his Hong Kong stomping grounds - although that can't help. Though there's something more than a little bit appealing about seeing what grim little places like a Memphis dive bar look like transmuted through Wong's stylish perfume-commercial levels of glossiness, I can't shake the feeling that the gloss is sort of all there is, that for the first time in his career style is the only thing giving the film meaning. The characters and their problems simply have no heft, especially given that they're filtered through Elizabeth's perspective, and she's simply too insubstantial a character for that to mean much to us.

It's claiming to much that the failures of My Blueberry Nights are the failure of Elizabeth's depiction, but that's a fairly good place to begin. Both Wong and Jones can bear some responsibility for that; the writer-director for not making her a very interesting woman, and Jones for... I can't in good conscious say that a non-action should be slagged for not acting well. It seems like that she was cast more for her soft, guileless appearance - and God knows that Khondji's camera absolutely adores Norah Jones - than anything else. Her chief aesthetic contribution to the movie is one song on the soundtrack (although following the director's tradition of highlighting the repetition of music, it's Cat Power who dominates the film).

Jones is not given much help in this regard by the fact that she's got some truly magnificent performances opposite. Jude Law is just doing a Jude Law - he's pretty! and British! - and Weisz has very little to actively play on, but Strathairn, whose very body language was almost enough to drive me to tears, and Portman, all fizzy surface and terrified inside, are both as good as they have been in at least a few years, and given the amount of time that Jones has to perform against one or the other of those actors, it's certainly not her fault that she gets overwhelmed.

Admittedly, a film like Chungking Express isn't held up as a masterpiece of acting or character development, but there was a robust love of life oozing out of that film. My Blueberry Nights feels a bit hollow in comparison. The central love story is quintessential Wong Kar-Wai, and therefore entirely seductive, but there's not much of a soul beneath the lusciousness, and so the aching sensuality of his best love stories is gone. It's by no means a chore to get through the film, but other than a renewed appreciation for absolute beauty in the cinema, there's not much to take away from the experience.

6/10

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