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Big, Fat, Piece O' Pie

My Blueberry Nights, Dir: Wong Kar Wai, Now Playing

My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar Wai's English-language feature debut, is a portrait of America and its culture of loneliness, and an homage to the heroic iconography of early Westerns, the divine romantic comedies, and the edgy MTV hip-ocrasy of love and loss. The heroine is Norah Jones, A lost and wandering girl found at a Mom-and-Pop diner in Brooklyn, who flings herself in from the rain and eats blueberry pie. "It's not bad!" says Jones, licking pie from her lips while Jude Law—the diner's English-accented owner with an air of loneliness as palpable as Jones'—drools. Road trip scenes ensue. Enter Peter Strathairn as an alcoholic cop, the male hooker with a heart of gold, who leaves Jones a big tip. Enter Rachel Weisz as his sexy drunk wife who cheats on him, and drinks vodka to numb her pain, and Natalie Portman, the free-spirited bohemian, who flips poker chips and drives her daddy's car to Vegas.

Wong Kar Wai presents us with America in all of its beauty, clichés, and paradoxes—musicians turned actors, actors turned musicians—but wait. Norah Jones, expressionless but beautiful, does not sing, not once. Cat Power, making a cameo as Law’s Russian ex, does not sing either. At times you almost wish Blueberry Nights was a joint Norah Jones/Cat Power music video—Wong, after all, does feature Jones and Cat Power prominently on the soundtrack. But recurring cuts to brilliant portraits of the American landscape (desert/casino/diner/pie) prove it’s a real movie, kind of.

Norah Jones may never act again, but Wong (2046; In the Mood For Love; Happy Together; Chungking Express) manages to make her look good, sort of. Then again, when cinematographer Darius Khondji (The Beach; Wimbeldon; The Interpreter) cuts to a full-screen close-up landscape of blueberry pie à la mode, he makes the pie look good, too. The pie, in its melty, oozy goo and glory, is everything Jones’ character, Elizabeth, is not: suggestive, emotional, and dynamic. The pie represents the loneliness of couples who have lost their mates, as it stands uncut and untouched in the diner’s baked goods cooler at the end of every night. The full-screen dripping pie looks like hearty soil and water and desolate American earth, and what could be lonelier than an empty dessert display? In fact: pie, pie, pie! The pie is a complete character. The pie, while no jazz singer, is a scene-stealer. Or, maybe, just as Wai’s 2004 film 2046 left many stumped viewers thinking not much more than “nice ass,” Jones’ line about her dessert really sums it up good. My Blueberry Nights is not bad.

Each shot is colorful and dark; Wong’s constant shift in aperture, pace and style is Blueberry Nights’ saving grace. A long, slow close-up of Rachel Weisz sauntering sexily into a dark, Memphis bar is followed by a sped-up bar fight. A bright red desert beside a flashy car, a highway stretching for miles, cuts to a fluorescent barrage of trains whizzing past in a city. A shaky montage of an empty Brooklyn café, about to close, evokes both Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks”—the lonesome urban diner at night, the faceless wanderers—and a music video from the ‘80s.

Blueberry Nights is classic Wong Kar Wai: swaggering cowboy rebellion meets pin-ups, meets poetry, meets philosophical meandering, with a dash of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking. The director addresses America as both a visual buffet of downtrodden, sexy loners searching for purpose in their places of worship (the bar, the poker table, the café whose owner always knows your order), and the ground upon which it stands—both desolate craggy rock and cities crammed with metal. In Blueberry Nights, style saves the day.

Wong’s experimental directorial method notoriously defies the rules and confines of traditional filmmaking (hardly any script—his actors improvise their lines). His regular leading man Tony Leung (In the Mood For Love) has learned to pull off the off-the-cuff. But, Norah Jones gives little to no performance, so Wong’s experimental style turns her into a plain old not-so-good actor who appears in almost every single scene. And it’s not Jones’ fault; the film is star-studded, but cast all wrong. Rachel Weisz—searching for her character as a drunk cop’s adulterous, Southern wife—channels Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club. When Natalie Portman arrives in the last act as a professional gambler with no back story or development, it’s: Thank god! Someone’s got to turn this thing around. But even Portman can’t salvage the one-dimensional relationship between Jones and Law, nor can Rachel Weisz and Peter Strathairn illicit the viewer’s emotion in all their wailing, Southerners-going-to-pot glory. And whatever Jude Law’s excuse is for his vapid portrayal of a spotless, pattering diner owner, who can blame him? He’s supposed to be in love with Norah Jones, who evokes more depth as a faceless, shapeless voice coming out your stereo. Cat Power can’t even smoke a cigarette like she means it, and she’s from the South, and smokes like a damn chimney!

<i>All photos courtesy of Jospeh Lederer �© 2007 Marriage Productions LLC. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics</i>
All photos courtesy of Jospeh Lederer �© 2007 Marriage Productions LLC. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

But Wong Kar Wai is easy on us—he gives us a break from one-dimensionality and unrealistic dialogue. As in Godard’s Contempt, wherein the lingering portraits of Brigitte Bardot in her striped shirt and sexy headband keep us from getting bored by endless shots of almost something, Wong tempers the hole-filled script (which holds absolutely no candle to the densely poetic narrative of Contempt) with undeniably gorgeous views of Rachel Weisz standing in lycra and big white sunglasses leaning on a shiny car, or Norah Jones, draped thoughtfully and big-lipped, cheek down on a Formica counter. And what could be more hip or moody than Gustavo Santaoalla’s music playing in a frame that’s a panorama of Monument Valley and a lone convertible glimmering in the heat? And if that ain’t America, what about Portman and Jones in bed together in Vegas!?!

Wong Kar Wai has done for international cinema what Wes Anderson did for the American indie flick, which is to say that even though people heard The Darjeeling Limited sucked, they saw it anyway. So when a director is more than just a director, when he’s the leader of a cultural style, and a prominent figure in culture period, one has to assume every step, every risk, is a changing point in cinematic history. Will Wong’s career be nourished by an English screenplay co-written with an American, or by English-speaking actors? Will this be his first, or his last American-made film?


Makenna Goodman

Makenna Goodman is a freelance writer based in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

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