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My Blueberry Nights
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Mmmm. . .Norah Jones A La Mode"
5 stars

It has been suggested by some friends and colleagues over the years that my personal critical approach has a few soft spots that perhaps cause me to almost automatically look favorably upon some movies as long as at least one of them are included somewhere in the mix, a charge that I will cheerfully plead guilty to and point out that the same thing could be said for virtually any other critic worth his or her salt. For one thing, I have always had a fondness for elaborate cinematic musings on the nature of love in which a lavish visual style and a killer soundtrack take precedence over a soundly constructed three-act narrative structure. (Francis Coppola’s “One from the Heart” and Leos Carax’s “The Lovers on the Bridge” immediately leap to mind as perfect examples.) I am also, it must be said, a sucker for a pretty face, especially if it belongs to a dark-haired ingénue who doesn’t quite fit into the classic sex-bomb mold. Finally, I seem to gravitate towards works by noted auteurs that find themselves being written off in advance by many critics after questionably received high-profile festival debuts. (This particular list is too long to adequately represent here but such wonderful-yet-misunderstood works as Wim Wenders’ “Until the End of the World,” Peter Greenaway’s “The Baby of Macon,” Darren Aronofksy’s “The Fountain” and Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales” will serve to illustrate my point.)

Based on the above criteria, I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone to discover that I enjoyed the romantic road movie “My Blueberry Nights.” After all, it is an elaborate cinematic musing on the nature of love that derives much of its power from the hypnotic visuals supplied by legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji and a killer soundtrack featuring the likes of Cat Power, Amos Lee, Otis Redding and Ry Cooder (whose music stylings have, thanks to his collaborations with Wim Wenders, become as integral a part of the entire road movie genre as the convertible). In addition, the cast includes the likes of Norah Jones, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman, three of the loveliest dark-haired women in the world today (although Portman queers the deal slightly by going the blonde route here, though it is always clear that her soul is still 100% brunette). Finally, it is the latest work from the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, the man behind such brilliant works as “Chungking Express,” “In the Mood for Love” and “2046,” and when it premiered as the Opening Night selection at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it received a decidedly mixed reception and the film is only now appearing in theaters nearly a year after its initial debut and in a version approximately 20 minutes shorter than its original incarnation. And yet, you don’t need to share my particular peccadilloes to recognize the brilliance of this particular film. All you need is an appreciation for the beauties that can be captured by a movie camera when it is placed in the hands of a filmmaker with the formal grace of a master and the heedless enthusiasm of a wide-eyed newcomer drunk with the possibilities that can be achieved.

The film is a loosely constructed triptych of tales in which the only real connections are the way that they examine the nature of relationships, developing ones as well as those frayed beyond all repair, and the presence of Norah Jones as the thread that links them together. She plays Elizabeth and as the film opens, she wanders into a New York City diner late one night searching for her boyfriend by asking the proprietor, Jeremy (Jude Law), if anyone has been in there ordering his favorite meatloaf dish and, more importantly, if that order was for one or two people. Of course, her boyfriend has been untrue and after breaking up with him, she decides to leave her keys with Jeremy for the rotter to pick them up—this is apparently a popular custom in this establishment as he has a jar filled with sets of keys representing many different types of heartbreak, including the one he himself suffered at the end of his own relationship with the mysterious Katya (Cat Power). After bonding over a pair of bloody noses—separately acquired during a mugging and a fight in the diner—Elizabeth and Jeremy settle into a comfortable after-hours routine involving the consumption of many pieces of leftover pie (ergo the title) while engaging in a low-key flirtation. Jeremy is instantly smitten but Elizabeth isn’t so sure and so to nurse her broken heart and find her bearings once again, she impulsive decides to set off on an extended journey of self-discovery.

When we next see her, she has made it as far as Memphis and is working days in a diner and nights in a seedy bar & grill in order to save up enough money to purchase a car in order to continue her journey while continuing to keep in contact with Jeremy through a series of oblique postcards. One night while at work, she befriends local cop Arnie (David Strathairn), a forlorn sort who informs her, none too convincingly, that this is “my last night of drinking.” It isn’t, of course, and as time goes on, she learns that Arnie’s failures at sticking to the precepts of 12-stepping (“I am the king of the white chips.”) have been exacerbated by his separation from his wife, local wild girl Sue Lynne (Weisz). One night, things come to a head when she very deliberately comes into the bar with a new boyfriend when she knows Arnie will be there and the result is an ugly scene between the two of them in which she makes it perfectly clear that she no longer loves him and that whatever there was between them has long since vanished. Inevitably, this incident has tragic repercussions and while Sue Lynne is treated as a pariah as a result, she has a heart-to-heart talk with Elizabeth that shows that she has suffered her own form of heartbreak as well.

While Jeremy is still frantically trying to reestablish contact with Elizabeth through the only manner possible—by calling every bar & grill in Memphis and asking for her—she takes off once again and reappears in Nevada waitressing in a casino far away from the bright lights of Vegas. There, she befriends the supremely self-confident card sharp Leslie (Portman) and when she has a dry spell at the table but knows that she has the skills to beat her opponent for a huge amount of money, the two strike up a deal—Elizabeth will front Leslie all the money she has to get her back into the game and will collect a third of the winnings if she is successful and her car if she isn’t. Alas, luck is not with Leslie that night and she is cleaned out. However, before Elizabeth can take possession of the car, Leslie implores her to drive them to Vegas where an unnamed associate will give her enough of a stake to start again. Along the way, Leslie begins to receive a series of phone calls from someone from her past urging her to get to Vegas as soon as possible. What transpires next teaches Elizabeth a few hard lessons about the twin dangers of putting too much faith into people without a clear idea of their true motives and of wasting too much time being consumed by old hurts and it gives her the final impetus that she needs to return to New York and confront both her past and her possible future with Jeremy.

While watching “My Blueberry Nights,” I sat in the screening room and tried to understand what it was about the film that so alienated the majority of those who caught it during that premiere screening at Cannes. At first, I thought it might be that the fact that the film was a little more dramatically streamlined than something like “2046,” a film that I have seen and adored many times even though I am admittedly not entirely certain what it all means, and that Wong might have tamped down (or had been forced to tamp down) the characteristics that have made his films so unique in order to conform with Americanized notions of filmmaking and distribution. However, that is clearly not the case because both the premise (people noodling about in various forms of heartbreak trying to avoid the potential pain of falling in love again) and the structure (in which several different stories are put together to form a single tale) have their roots in such previous films as “Chungking Express.” In translating his narrative concerns into a screenplay that he would pretty much have to stick to while filming in America (in his native land, Wong is infamous for largely ignoring his scripts once the production begins in order to make things up as he goes along, a process that has yielded some wonderful work but which has also elongated his shooting schedules from just a few weeks to upwards of fourteen months), Wong and his co-writer, the American crime novelist Lawrence Block, have done an excellent job of transplanting the material without losing much of anything in the translation. The three stories are short, sweet and packed with drama, romance, tears, displaced eroticism and not a little bit of humor. Sure, what transpires may not be realistic by any stretch of the imagination, especially in regards to some of the dialogue, but it does fit in with the majority of his other films. Besides, if you are going to have your characters speaking in the elliptical manner of a Wong Kar Wai film, it obviously comes across a lot better if they have the good grace to actually be in a Wong Kar Wai film than if they aren’t.

Then I thought that part of the negative response might be a reaction to the fact that the film marks the first time that Wong and his longtime cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, have not collaborated since they first joined forces on Wong’s second film—this may not sound like a big deal to most people but the two have worked so brilliantly in tandem over the years that the chore of working with someone new and unused to Wong’s particular methods could have potentially backfired. However, that certainly isn’t the case because while Wong may have lost one ace cinematographer, he more than made up for it by hiring Darius Khondji, arguably the best lensman working today and one who has enjoyed impressive collaborations with the likes of such visually adept filmmakers as David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. What they have come up with here is such a seamlessly beautiful and effective work that you would think that they have been collaborating for years. Without ever calling too much attention to his efforts, Khondji finds the beauty in such seemingly mundane locales as an ordinary diner, a run-down casino and a slightly seedy apartment building and some of his images are so striking—a periwinkle-frosted cupcake spinning in a dessert holder, Rachel Weisz making her grand entrance into the film confidently strolling through a bar with the sounds of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” offering ironic counterpoint or a even huge close-up of Norah Jones resting her sleepy head upon a counter with just a hint of melted ice cream on her upper lip—that I can see people eventually watching the film on their large-screen TV’s and pausing the film during these moments in order to simply study them at length.

Finally, I thought that the criticism might have been inspired by Wong’s decision to cast acclaimed pop star Norah Jones, who has never acted before outside of a couple of her music videos, in the central role as some kind of stunt instead of going for a more accomplished actress. However, that theory falls apart for a couple of reasons. For one, many of Wong’s Hong Kong films have featured pop stars in acting roles and when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago, he revealed that she was the person that he had in mind all along when he conceived of the project. For another, she is actually quite good and affecting in the role of Elizabeth. She is obviously not an accomplished actress and I am not sure how she would work within the confines of a part not specifically designed for her—although seeing her replace the likes of Katherine Heigl in every one of her movies might help things slightly, I doubt it would be enough to make that much of a difference—but her occasional awkwardness and lack of actorly artifice actually enhances the character she is playing, not to mention the inescapable fact that the camera simply adores her. Essentially, her performance is an extension of the persona that she has developed over the course of her three albums—a sweet-voiced heartbroken heartbreaker whose tales of woe and sadness have an undercurrent of solace that keeps things from sinking into total despair—and she has a surprisingly commanding on-screen presence that doesn’t disappear when she is sharing the screen with her more accomplished co-stars. As for those co-stars, they all do a good job of adapting to the twin challenges of working with a distinct directorial voice making his English-language debut and with a star in another artistic discipline making her own type of big-screen debut. Of them, the most striking work is turned in by Strathairn and Weisz—in just a few short scenes, they give us a searing and painful glimpse into a marriage that has gone bad in ways that even the participants have yet to fully grasp.

All told, I can think of only one legitimate reason for the cool reception that “My Blueberry Nights” has received in some quarters and that is because it has the unenviable task of following the likes of Wong’s two previous films, “In the Mood for Love” and “2046.” Each one of those titles were the kind of once-in-a-lifetime achievement that most filmmakers never quite achieve and which entire critical reputations can be made upon and by comparison, a more modest work is presumably going to penalized for not quite scaling the same artistic heights. And yet, while I concede that those two earlier films were unquestionably the more profound artistic achievements, “My Blueberry Nights” is perhaps the most deliriously entertaining thing that Wong has ever made, at least since the equally rapturous “Chungking Express.” This is the kind of cinematic bliss-out that so fully envelopes you that when it comes to its conclusion, you’ll want to stay in your seat and bask in its glories a second time rather than return to the comparatively mundane sights and sounds of the real world.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16819&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/18/08 00:00:00
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User Comments

8/04/20 Marcus Chun Thanks for your insightful, brilliant review of this underrated work of art. 5 stars
10/21/08 Shaun Wallner Great Film! 4 stars
8/24/08 Samantha Pruitt i love all the actresses, i thought it was a sweet movie, interesiting characterization. 4 stars
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  04-Apr-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 01-Jul-2008



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