Thursday, May 1, 2008

My Blueberry Nights: Sweet dreams

My Blueberry Nights (2007) • View trailer for My Blueberry Nights
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.08
Buy DVD: My Blueberry Nights • Buy Blu-Ray: My Blueberry Nights [Blu-ray]

Some films luxuriate in their display of technique and mood, the characters' actions sometimes shunted aside so we can reflect upon what brought them to this point, and (more crucially) what might be necessary to propel them anew.
With no other friends in whom to confide, a heartbroken Elizabeth (Norah Jones)
tentatively reaches out to compassionate café owner Jeremy (Jude Law); their
resulting friendship gives her the strength necessary to begin a journey of

Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai loves the richness of atmosphere; he indulges in arty set design and inventive camerawork, always striving to convey the contemplative, troubled state of mind that he obviously believes characterizes so much of humanity. His films move slowly — some would say much too slowly — while following the actions of protagonists whose feelings smolder beneath a surface veneer usually dictated by social custom.

2000's In the Mood for Love, for example, followed the relationship of chance that develops between stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, when they learn that their respective spouses (whom we never meet) are having an affair. What, then, might our protagonists' next move be? A supportive friendship? Their own extra-marital fling, prompted by spite?

The decision unfolds against the gloomy hallways and darkened rooms of an apartment complex in 1960s Hong Kong: often more dream than reality.

Wong's films are an acquired taste: eclectic and temperamental for their own sake, but unfailingly generous to actors willing to conceive and then inhabit richly intriguing characters, suggesting their thoughts and desires via small gestures and minimal dialogue.

"Sometimes the tangible distance between two persons can be quite small," Wong has said, "but the emotional one can be miles."

His English-language film debut, My Blueberry Nights, is very much in this spirit: a quiet examination of a young woman who decides to find herself in the wake of a relationship gone sour. The resulting drama is pure road trip; she journeys across the United States and touches down in this city or that, pausing long enough to become a catalyst in the lives of other troubled souls.

She learns, as do we, that no matter how tragic our own experiences seem, somebody else is having a much tougher time. And, sometimes, watching others fail to cope — watching them sink for the third time — is all the prodding we need to get our own act together.

The young woman is Elizabeth (sultry jazz/folk singer Norah Jones, in a respectable acting debut), and her story begins in New York, where she has just learned that her boyfriend is cheating on her. The news is delivered almost accidentally by a compassionate café owner, Jeremy (Jude Law), who remembers his customers not by their faces, but by what they order; he recalls Elizabeth's "pork chop" companion having been in with somebody else.

Jeremy is a people person: good at his job and delighted by his daily opportunity to interact with regulars. He's also something of a dreamy romantic, and has accumulated a jar filled with keys that have been forgotten, abandoned or — as in Elizabeth's case — angrily hurled away.

We eventually learn that Jeremy's own keys are in the jar; he, too, has a door in his life that he's not quite willing to close completely.

Discard the keys, he explains to Elizabeth, and all those doors remain locked forever. Does he have that right?

She responds to his kindness; they bond; she begins showing up at closing time. But then, abruptly, she vanishes. Responding to some inner need she can't articulate, she boards a bus and lets it take her elsewhere. She touches down in one city and befriends a troubled, alcoholic cop (David Strathairn, as Arnie) and his estranged wife (Rachel Weisz, as Sue Lynne); another stop farther down the road, and the new troubled soul is a down-on-her-luck gambler (Natalie Portman, as Leslie) with her own demons.

Not too many days into her journey, Elizabeth impulsively sends a postcard back to Jeremy. He's surprised by the degree to which its arrival delights him. Unfortunately, lacking a return address, he cannot write back.

Wong's film and script — co-written with veteran mystery/thriller author Lawrence Bloch — is episodic and can be divided into thirds: Elizabeth and Jeremy, Arnie and Sue Lynne, Elizabeth and Leslie.

Each segment functions as a separate short story; collectively, they help shape Elizabeth's sense of herself.

We may wonder why Wong chose such an acting neophyte to handle the crucial role of Elizabeth, although in fairness Jones does reasonably well. In the pantheon of singers-turned-actors, she's neither as accomplished as Cher (Moonstruck) nor as laughably clumsy as Neil Diamond (The Jazz Singer), instead hovering somewhere in the middle.

Jones' frequently troubled gaze and the set of her face are ideal for Wong's purposes. As part of the tableau of a particular scene — observing as Arnie and Sue Lynne tear into each other, for example — Jones is perfect. She's also reasonably adept with quieter dialogue, her stiffness and thespic uncertainty surfacing only when required to intensify her emotions for a more dramatic scene.

She cannot, for example, sell Elizabeth's frightened and angry reaction to having been mugged; she doesn't look or sound credible for a moment.

But Jones holds her own in a film laden with a powerful supporting cast, and that's no small accomplishment.

Strathairn, in particular, is sublime. Arnie drinks too much and knows he drinks too much; when Elizabeth timidly suggests that he should try to cut back, Arnie ruefully digs into a pocket and spills a collection of sobriety chips onto the bar counter. His subsequent confession/explanation is a masterpiece of understated acting: one of those isolated moments by which an actor's entire career can be defined.

Law is breezily charming, conveying great chunks of characterization with brief snatches of dialogue and an effortlessly casual manner. Jeremy is yet another recent character who philosophically compares humanity to freshly baked pies, a metaphor that seems quite popular these days (consider the big screen's Waitress and the small screen's Pushing Daisies).

We can't help liking Jeremy, and of course we're intended to. The question is whether Elizabeth actually likes him, as well, or is using him as a crutch.

Portman takes an alternate route in this melancholy universe; she makes Leslie spunky and sparkling. It's no accident that her segment involves more daylight shooting than any other; most of Elizabeth's time with Jeremy, and later with Arnie and Sue Lynne, takes place after dark and in a shadow-laden café or an even murkier bar.

Leslie, on the other hand, burns brightly ... but much too brightly. She's a sun going supernova, and it's only a matter of time before Portman exposes her character's brittle edges and allows the inner insecurities to emerge.

All these characters are unhappy at some point during this film; our hopes tend to align with those who seem capable of digging their way out of melancholy. Jeremy has managed this feat; Sue Lynne — such a self-destructive performance by Weisz — has no hope of doing so. We wonder, then, about Elizabeth, Arnie and Leslie.

Wong and cinematographer Darius Khondji love indirect or obscured tableaus; we rarely see these characters directly. We're always glimpsing them through glass windows (themselves partially hazed by painted signs), restaurant display cases, pillars, doorways, furniture, mirrors and anything else Wong might use to suggest the degree to which we never really know a person who might stand directly in front of us.

Other symbols are more direct, as with the ceaselessly hurtling subways that serve as scene bumpers during the early New York segment: our certain cue that Elizabeth cannot linger in this place.

At first blush, this style of storytelling seems an unusual fit for Bloch, best known for two book series: the first starring a disarmingly charming cat burglar (Bernie Rhodenbarr); the second, at the extreme other end of the spectrum, featuring a cold-blooded but oddly compassionate professional killer (Keller). But those who've read Bloch's short stories will recognize a fascination with brief encounters — isolated incidents that deftly characterize one or two people — that clearly parallels Wong's sympathies and narrative style.

More crucially, in terms of artistic prowess, Bloch also has Wong's gift for quickly sketching fully fleshed individuals with telling actions and brief exchanges of dialogue.

My Blueberry Nights is, as a result, more cinematic tone poem than conventional narrative. The degree to which you'll bathe in its often self-indulgent atmosphere will be a function of how well you tolerate these characters and their sad, lonely lives. But "sad" doesn't mean joyless, and Elizabeth's physical trek across the country is matched by her own spiritual journey. Destinations await in both cases, and Wong understands this necessity.

His characters learn from the behavior of others. The question, for them as for us, is whether they'll take the correct lessons to heart.

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