MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (2007, directed by Wong Kar Wai, 90 minutes, U.S./Hong Kong)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
In the mid-’90s, the music cognoscenti had become enamored with the Brazilian ’60s rock group Os Mutantes, whose mix of Beatle-ish harmonies, fuzzed-out guitar and eccentric arrangements gave them a sound like no other. In 2000, resurgent interest in the band led to an issuing of a previously-unreleased 1970 recording session. Titled Technicolor, it featured Os Mutantes revisiting the prime moments of their repertoire, this time singing not in Portuguese but in English. Same great band, same great songs — so how could this spontaneous and charming group produce a record that was such an inexplicably awkward, lifeless bore?
The same sort of intangible cultural mistranslation is quickly apparent in the new film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, the horribly named My Blueberry Nights. This hodgepodge of brokenhearted stories also feels like a Greatest Hits collection, stamped with all of Wong Kar Wai’s trademark moves: freeze-frame montages, richly saturated colors and lovers who suffer from irrevocably crossed signals. Everything you love about his movies is here, yet somehow its new packaging makes the director’s whole method seem cutesy and superficial.
Wong Kar Wai took a gamble by placing the first-time actress, singer Norah Jones, at the center of his story. She delivers much the same impression as an actress as she does as a vocalist, meaning she’s attractive without being particularly interesting. The film is framed by her character Elizabeth’s flirtation with New York diner owner Jude Law, but for most of the film she is more a witness to the action than a part of it. It is during that most American of rituals, the cross-country trip, that Elizabeth surveys our broken hearts, first in Memphis as she watches the doomed pyrotechnics of battling exes David Straithairn and Rachel Weisz, then later in Vegas where she befriends a high-rolling poor little rich girl played by Natalie Portman.
With its script by mystery writer Lawrence Block, My Blueberry Nights revisits themes the director has reworked since at least the early ’90s, once again showing lonely characters who could find the love they yearn for if only they had the courage to speak their minds. Maybe this sort of coyness plays into the cultural stereotype of reserved Asian manners, or maybe such romanticism goes down easier when read from subtitles, but rendered in English each of the stories has a sense of over-calculated falseness that makes each scene ring hollow. Jude and Norah go all doe-eyed in their elliptical conversations about keys and promises, it’s difficult to believe they could work themselves into such a romantic froth then walk away from each other without exchanging digits.
Wong Kar Wai had been mixing his lush visuals and pining lovers for a decade before he released his 2004 masterwork, the Cannes darling 2046. With its sci-fi trapping and its epic scale, 2046 felt like his Masters thesis on melancholy and the human heart, the final word on the subject. Where could he go from here? With this commercialized rehash, WongKar Wai has delivered about the worst answer to that question imaginable.