Warning: The following review is due to entering the wrong theater two weeks after arriving in Brussels. Expecting to see Eastern Promises, I pretended to understand a nice young girls' Dutch and ended up seeing this movie instead. Always, always, know which theater you should enter, even if it's embarrassing for a few seconds. The alternative is the following...
The first movie I saw by director Wong Kar Wai was 2046, the futuristic sequel to his breakthrough hit In the Mood for Love. At the time, I was unsure of what to think; the movie had shots of exquisite beauty and patience, but the pacing was awkward, with starts and stops for no apparent reason, and little in the way of understandable narrative. I would have dismissed it, but I felt I didn't understand it, that Wong was doing something with all of those odd cuts. In a word, it was exotic, and the setting, actors, and language all forced a distance to the movie, so that I gave it plenty of room for error. I didn't get it, but I thought if I knew more about Wong, I would like it.
Unfortunately, in Wong's latest movie, My Blueberry Nights (limited release in the states April 4), the exoticism is gone, and only the meandering story remains. In place of the iconic lovers of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in some futuristic Hong Kong, we a get Jude Law and (yes) Norah Jones in a drab New York eatery. I will get this part of of the way quickly for the curious: Jones is a poor actress, not inept or cringe worthy, but just overwhelmingly, punishingly, bland. But she isn't the reason the movie is so bad. The reason the movie is so bad is that Wong simply has no idea what real people in America think or do. (The screenplay was co-written by Wong and Lawrence Block, a writer who seemed to peak in the early 2000s with work on some things called "Tilt" and "Spine Chillers.")
The story is that Elizabeth (Jones) is trying to overcome a breakup with her ex-boyfriend and has left him his set of keys to pick up at a diner. The diner's owner is Jeremy (Law), another heartbroken loser who makes and bakes pies all day (you know you are in for a tough ride when you realize that pie eating will be the master metaphor for the film). Jeremy is in possession of a key jar, supposedly containing all of the keys that people have left for jilted lovers over the years. Now, these things may exist, but I've never heard of one. Instead, it seems like a contrived idea to allow Jeremy to go through each key, one by one, and explain the breakups that accompany them.
Elizabeth, curious to see if her ex-boyfriend will ever pick up the keys, begins to haunt Jeremy's diner late at night, and eats up all of his pie. It's pretty clear they are going to fall in love, but it's only 20 minutes into the movie, so many, many, more adventures will have to come before the inevitable romance. Instead of simply falling for Law, with whom she clearly has affection (Law and Jones do actually have some chemistry), she sets out on a journey of self discovery, waiting tables and meeting Hollywood celebr- sorry, I mean meeting "real" folks out across this great land of America. And all the while, she sends postcards without return addresses to Jeremy, who seemingly has done nothing in his life other than work the fryer and oven since his girlfriend left him. (As unbelievable as Elizabeth's New Yorker-turned-diner-waitress character is, it pales in comparison to Jeremy's lifeless cipher).
Along the road, Elizabeth actually does meet some good actors, including David Straithairn as a drunk and Rachel Weisz (by far, the best part of the movie) as his ex-wife, vamping up the southern hottie role quite well. Hell, even The Wire's Frankie Faison pops up as the bar's owner, and for about twenty minutes the movie is pretty interesting: Straithairn takes shots, Faison demands he pay the tab, Weisz looks frickin' gorgeous in high heels, black dress, and done-up hair. None of this is really cinematic in any way (just lame closeups of Stratithairmn sipping apple juice), or advances the plot (maybe Elizabeth learns a lesson!), but I like all the actors, and they looked like they were having fun.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth gets bored again and moves out to Vegas where she meets...Natalie Portman! Portman, in another WTF role where she thinks every character is just some insane, over-the-top person, is this time a poker player who is avoiding her dying father. If you've ever wanted to see what a road trip is like between Jones and Portman, here is your chance, as the two turn what should be an 8 hour drive to Reno into a three day adventure. (I'm assuming the trip was lengthened to allow a scene where the two ladies lie half naked in motel bed together.)
Something happens with Portman's dad, and of course Jones returns to New York to reunite with Law, but I pretty much tuned the movie out by this point. It was just too much to watch a movie where the writer/director is absolutely clueless as to how real people deal with love, abandonment, death, live, everything. I guess if you want to have an alternate universe where people fall in love after making speeches about the importance of serving blueberry pie, you can, but to combine that with realistic touches like greasy kitchens and small town bars just makes for a boring movie. I doubt Wong has ever been to half of the back-country America he depicts here.
But I don't fault Wong for making completely two-dimensional characters, but for making such dull two-dimensional characters. In what is supposed to be a lesson of self-discovery and learning to be who you are (that pretty much is the moral of the story), you have to have characters who actually seem conflicted, rather than just saying they hate their parents. Even Straithairn, who should be able to do better, is stuck with a one note performance of droopy eyes and slurred speech, about as believable as a drunk from a comic strip. It seems as if Wong and Block are only aware of this existential suffering that people go through, only aware of this thing called alcoholism which destroys families, only aware of how a spoiled rich girl feels about her father, but have no actual experience of these things in their own life.
When I first saw 2046, I thought the strange cinematography and odd language concealed something deeper in the director. Instead, it turns out that the visual shit was all there was to it. Stripped of time-traveling trains and gorgeous actors who pose more than act (and whose flat dialog can be concealed in sub-titles), in My Blueberry Nights, Wong has only his soul to bear. It ain't much.