Monday, March 31, 2008

"My Blueberry Nights" -- * * 1/2

How much you like Wong Kar-Wai’s superficial, clunky, yet oddly alluring “My Blueberry Nights” will depend on your capacity for being won over by aesthetics above all else. It ultimately works better as a mood piece than a particularly satisfying narrative, and while I can't really defend it as an entertainment, it has a quality that grew on me (“what the French call a certain... I don’t know what”). If Kar-Wai had kept the visuals and the music, and chucked all of the dialogue, the film might have approached some level of brilliance. But at the end of the day, pretty much all you can say for it is that looks like a million bucks, and has a semi-satisfying sweet, sad, love-obsessed undercurrent that rubs off on you. Is that enough to recommend going out to see it? Not really, but it’s difficult to recall the last movie that felt this ideally suited for a rainy Sunday afternoon under the covers.

Adopting a patchwork structure that cares little about plot, the movie follows Elizabeth (Norah Jones) on a string of encounters she has after being dumped by her never-seen boyfriend. Book-ended with sequences of her apparently-supposed-to-be-romantic-but-kind-of-unsettlingly-creepy encounters with bartender/waiter/restaurant owner Jeremy (Jude Law), Elizabeth sets out on the road on one of those good ole soul-searching journeys to sort out her feelings about life and love. The middle segment of the film mostly focuses on her interactions with Arnie (David Strathairn), who’s turned to the bottle after being left by his whorish wife, southern belle Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). Soon after, and for much less time-- but just enough to make an impact-- she hangs out with trashy gambler Leslie (Natalie Portman). These stops give her a bit of clarity about the state of her affairs, so to speak, and her naivety slowly rubs off. All throughout, her and Jeremy write mashy, awfully-written postcards to each other.

In her motion picture debut, singer Jones proves to be a not very good actress. She’s not awful—and the camera loves her—but when asked to express real loss or emotion, she comes off as frivolously whiny. I wouldn’t write her off just yet, but this isn’t the most auspicious of debuts. As the bartender who creepily remembers people based on what their order, Law is pulling out his old bag of “Aren’t I charmingly British?” tricks, and it works just fine, even if we hardly get a sense of dimension from Jeremy. Weisz and Portman are both just fine, if nothing to write home about, though the former occasionally veers into shrill territory. Strathairn gives the lone performance in the film that's really something special. Like almost all the characters, Arnie is woefully underwritten, but Strathairn imbues him with a honest, worn-down sense of sadness and humanity that makes him feel three-dimensional.

The script itself is underwritten and overwritten all at once, never giving us enough to satisfy, while delivering dialogue that is eye-rollingly cornball, and not resembling anything someone might actually say. It’s filled with pearls of greeting-card wisdom (“When you’re gone, all that’s left of you is memories you left in other people’s lives”) that you eventually just learn to start ignoring. What gets you past that is the level of craft and supreme beauty on display in “Blueberry’s” best moments. The music, for one, is pretty much perfect for what Kar-Wai is trying to do. While it’s weirdly distracting to have Norah Jones songs playing on the soundtrack as she’s acting in a scene, they fit remarkably well with the material, as does “Try a Little Tenderness,” utilized a handful of times (most memorably during Weisz’s character’s entrance).

But what one remembers most of the film is the visual inclusions by cinematographer Darius Khondjis. Peppered throughout the film, starting with the opening credits, are borderline-pornographic close-up shots of pie filling. The shots, which initially appear grotesque until we realize what we’re looking at, have a strange kind of beauty to them that lingers more than any script machinations. There are plentiful beautiful images, and the directorial decisions imbue the movie with more intriguing elements than the content might have dictated. Kar-Wai includes close-ups of ice cream melting over pie intercut with a very odd kissing scene between Law and Jones, and he elects to shoot moments of violence (a barfight, a scuffle in a restaurant) through hazy, blurry lenses , among numerous other quirks. They may have made me scratch my head more than anything else, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t dig them.

Even with a noticeably shitty script, Kar-Wai’s thoroughly successful establishment of a mood, and d.p. Khondjis’s cinematography almost turn “My Blueberry Nights” into something worth watching. A sweet, meandering tone-poem more than anything substantive, the low-key, nearly plotless movie is just something you go with or you don’t, and it registers as a “near-miss” for me. I imagine this was intended as the filmmaker’s more "mainstream" picture with the simplistic, formula story elements, and the famous, pretty faces, but I can't imagine what the mainstream moviegoing populace would make of this if they bothered to see it. It’s just going to be too “boring” and aimless for the masses; I didn't particularly find it thrilling myself, but there's enough to appreciate to make me glad I watched it, if not exactly dying to watching it again.

"My Blueberry Nights" opens Friday April 4th on five screens in limited release (presumably in NY and LA).


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