MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS
Running Time 90 minutes
Written by Wong Kar Wai and Lawrence Block
Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz
Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, from a screenplay by Wong and Lawrence Block, from a story by Wong, marks Wong’s first English-language feature in a 20-year, eight-feature and two-segment career that has won him critical plaudits and festival prizes around the world. Fortunately, Mr. Wong has made the perilous journey into a new language without sacrificing his artistic soul and very personal visual style. Hence, My Blueberry Nights strikes me as beguiling enough and bewitching enough even at this early date to make my list of the 10 best English-language films of 2008.
Indeed, My Blueberry Nights fully succeeds in achieving the objectives that its auteur hoped to reach, as he explained in a statement: “Sometimes the tangible distance between two persons can be quite small but the emotional distance can be miles. My Blueberry Nights is a look at those distances from various angles. I wanted to explore these expanses both figuratively and literally, and the lengths it takes to overcome them.”
Wong is aided in no small measure in this simultaneously intimate and expansive endeavor by his co-writer, Mr. Block, a veteran crime novelist with the necessary good ear for dialogue demanded by the mystery genre. The film is also well served by a free-spirited cast headed by a newcomer to the screen, pop music sensation Norah Jones as Elizabeth, who begins the film with a broken heart, and travels across America trying to mend it. Her character, however, is a waitress, not a singer, except on the soundtrack; there she joins with many others in a succession of torchy ballads reinforcing the movie’s main theme of an endless yearning for that one true love that seldom seems to materialize right away.
Elizabeth explodes with anger and tears in a cafe one night when she sees her boyfriend (Chad Davis) with another woman (Katya Blumenberg). The cafe’s whimsical owner, Jeremy (Jude Law), tries to console her, but she keeps returning to the street corner that looks up to her boyfriend’s apartment, where he is now entertaining her successor.
As she gets to know Jeremy better, he shows her a large jar full of keys left by spurned lovers, hoping that the owners will come back to retrieve them, but they never do, Jeremy tells Elizabeth. Jeremy himself has a set of keys in the jar, but he has just about given up hope that his former beloved will return to break the dismal spell of the jar. In the course of one of their conversations, Jeremy reveals that nobody ever orders the blueberry pie because all his customers are hooked on other pastries. Elizabeth then experimentally orders a serving of blueberry pie, and we watch her eat every bite with a mixture of pleasure and surprise. By this time, the director of In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004), has shown his stylistic hand in shifts of focus and angle as Elizabeth blithely devours the blueberry pie. She then falls into a deep sleep on the counter, and Jeremy delicately caresses the hair straying over her forehead.
But we are only in the first third of the movie, and Elizabeth has a long way to go as an observer and a participant in two other life stories, one in Memphis and the other in Nevada, before she can return to Jeremy in New York as an emotionally confident woman. Wong believes literally in the long distances his characters must travel, and for his first American movie, why not avail himself of virtually the entire American continent?
In a Memphis bar diner where Elizabeth has been hired as a waitress by the stern but strangely compassionate manager (John Malloy), she comes into contact with Arnie (David Strathairn), an off-duty cop trying to drink his way out of his despair over his separation from his wife, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). Elizabeth watches helplessly as a hopeless situation ends worse for Arnie than for the more emotionally resilient Sue Lynne.
This episode in the movie plays out in a dangerously maudlin manner, and if Elizabeth’s next adventure, in Nevada, was in the same key, the entire movie would slide downhill. Instead, a beautiful and perky poker player named Leslie (Natalie Portman) single-handedly lifts up the whole movie with her sassy, swaggering manner, and her amusingly shameless attempts to manipulate Elizabeth into surrendering her life’s savings for the promise of a car, so that Leslie can reenter a poker game in which she has previously gambled and lost everything in one winner-take-all hand.
In the meantime, Elizabeth has kept in touch with Jeremy, via postcards and cell-phone conversations. The stage is set for a final reunion, and another large serving of blueberry pie. The point is that the blueberry pie is palpably much more than a metaphor. Mr. Wong treats it as the tasty stuff of life and memory in a compellingly elongated torch-carrying love story.
One can say that Wong has only one story to tell, but whether it takes place in Hong Kong and Singapore, or in New York, Memphis and Nevada, it is ultimately the most important story the cinema can tell, and Wong does it beautifully and passionately.