For his first English-language film, Wong Kar-wai enlists a strong cast that includes Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and singer Norah Jones, so why does his cafe-bar romance feel so second-hand? Noel Megahey reviews.
It’s a strange thing – and something that makes him almost unique among directors working today – but the best thing about Wong Kar-wai’s films is that he never actually makes the film he sets out to make. In the extra features of Happy Together, In The Mood For Love and 2046 DVDs for example, you can see fragments of the films he originally intended to make, but fortunately didn’t, since the original thin idea was just a springboard for exploring something less tangible, less easily transcribed into a screenplay, something that the genius of the Wong Kar-wai could develop into an immeasurably greater film. The trouble with My Blueberry Nights is that in it Wong Kar-wai makes the film he originally set out to make.
There are undoubtedly good reasons for this, but the primary reason must almost certainly be that the great Hong Kong director is making his first feature film in English. It’s something that has tripped up many international directors in the past, who come to Hollywood and feel the need to either do an inferior remake one of their best films or make up a patchwork of their greatest hits. My Blueberry Nights feels like a remake of Chungking Express, with the best bits of Happy Together thrown in there and maybe a scene or two from Fallen Angels. Although My Blueberry Nights technically retains its independent status, when you have major Hollywood stars on board, sticking to the script and a shooting schedule is probably a contractual obligation, leaving the director little room for the improvisational style he is famed for – or notorious for, since the films consequently can take 3 or 4 years to finish.
It’s the end of Chungking Express that seems to be the starting point for My Blueberry Nights only transposed to a fast-food bar in New York where Jeremy (Jude Law) knows his customers by their regular order rather than by their actual name. Jeremy sees the relationships that are formed there, but also witnesses the sadness of the break-ups, keeping sets of keys left behind by their owners when things turn sour, holding them in a jar behind the counter. Keeping a set of his own keys there, Jeremy’s café has become like a holding place for broken relationships, one unchanging certainty that will always be there should anyone ever want to find their way back. Few ever do. One such example is Elizabeth (Norah Jones). Nursing a broken heart, Elizabeth finds solace in the café’s blueberry pie, feeling some kinship with the only dish left on the shelf untouched at the end of each day.
Undecided about whether to hold out hope for her boyfriend coming back, she decides to take off on a 300 day trip around America to find herself. Working as a waitress as Betty, Lizzie and Beth in places as diverse as Memphis and Nevada, she encounters several other lonely people in difficult relationships – a drunken cop Arnie (David Strathairn) who sits at a bar in the belief that his wayward wife (Rachel Weisz) will come back to him, and Leslie (Natalie Portman), a seemingly tough, independent gambler who also has a past she is running away from. Elizabeth regularly sends Jeremy postcards of her travels, and he waits for her as she goes “California dreaming”, hoping that one day she might return for some blueberry pie.
The reason the story and the whole look and feel of My Blueberry Nights might seem familiar is because its story of a couple who fall in love over a favourite dish on a menu was originally written as one of the segments of In The Mood For Love – a film that was intended to be made up of three thematically linked stories before Wong Kar-wai became wrapped up entirely in the story that eventually took it over, taking years to find the essence of the story. Wong Kar-wai evidently doesn’t have that luxury when working with the likes of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz, who clearly have to fit their work in among busy schedules – and it shows. There is none of the usual fluidity you will find in a Wong Kar-wai film, the characters feel cardboard and over-acted, talking too much and never seeming to develop any real life of their own, as they would do if the director had the time to work with the actors and explore them. In order to get some of that real personality back and less of the acting, Wong Kar-wai casts a couple of non-actors, notably singer Norah Jones in the lead role – which works to some extent, finding a certain naivety in the singer – but even this idea feels second-hand. When compared to the pairing of Tony Leung and Cantonese pop-singer Faye Wong in Chungking Express, Jude Law and Norah Jones (with the roles reversed) make a very poor substitute.
The cinematography – simply luscious and typically bursting with colour – is also very familiar looking. Christopher Doyle isn’t helming the camera this time around, but Darius Khondji does a passable imitation, saturating the colour like In The Mood For Love, dropping the frame rate like Chungking Express, using the Fallen Angels high fish-eye viewpoint, and even fitting in a café-bar brawl from that film with Norah Jones looking Happy Together-style into the bar over the neon-lights of the bar window. Even the counting out of the days and rattle of blurred trains mark the distance of Elizabeth’s separation from bad memories and lost love much in the same manner as 2046.
As good a film as 2046 was – very nearly a masterpiece – it didn’t really push the director in much of a new direction or further on from In The Mood For Love. It’s disappointing then to see that even working in a new area with a new crew and English actors, Wong Kar-wai is looking backwards yet again. In the Ry Cooder soundtrack and in the repetition of music cues (Cat Power’s The Greatest highly effective) and in the colours of New York, Memphis and Las Vegas bars, Wong finds the perfect equivalent mood for his melancholic tales of broken hearts and new beginnings, but doesn’t find a story or a performance worthy of it all. Focussing on one of the stories alone, Wong Kar-wai just might have been able to develop My Blueberry Nights into something greater (the Natalie Portman section would have been the most original and promising, the actress also notably being the most fresh and natural performer here) – but were it not for the names involved and the necessity to work to a set script to deliver a film on time, you can’t help but feel that much of this film would and should have been left on the cutting room floor.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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