Both a supreme melancholic and a pop hipster, Hong Kong mood wiz Wong Kar Wai has made his first English-language feature, “My Blueberry Nights,” and it’s a dazzling letdown.
Serving up everything from Nashville honky-tonk to close-ups of ice cream melting into purplish pie filling, the filmmaker responsible for the heady “Chungking Express” and the exquisitely sad “2046” has crafted a combination road tale, romance and dollop of Americana that treats the senses, but lacks emotional power.
While displaying more Hollywood-style dramatics and sunny closure than usual, Wong is characteristically plot-spare and bluesy in this three-act dream puff that begins in Manhattan.
In a diner recalling the noodle joints of Wong’s “In the Mood for Love” as a comfort spot for sad-eyed soul mates, Elizabeth (Norah Jones), a romantically burned lonely heart, and Jeremy (Jude Law), the proprietor who provides her with pie and sympathy, sweetly click and give the movie almost a core before Elizabeth leaves on a cross-country self-discovery journey.
The supporting cast provides the sizzle in Nashville and Las Vegas, where Elizabeth waits tables and interacts with some severely troubled sorts: a self-destructive alcoholic cop (David Strathairn); his seething, unhappy estranged wife (Rachel Weisz); a compulsive gambler (Natalie Portman) who takes Elizabeth for two kinds of rides.
Wong seems incapable of making a dull film, and as he delivers slow motion, super-close-ups of Elizabeth’s lips, conversations shot through window signage, and gooey blueberry pie, the movie scintillates visually. The characters’ struggles to connect generate numerous moments of heat.
Unfortunately, though, this amounts to nothing meaningful.
As scripted by Wong and co-writer Lawrence Block (the crime novelist), the characters and scenarios feel as cliched as they do iconic. The dialogue is drippy. The Elizabeth-Jeremy romance, relying largely on postcard correspondence to stay active, unfolds weakly. In sum, the dimension and resonance necessary to emotionally sustain us are missing.
The film also lacks an effective central performance. Jones, the jazz singer, isn’t an actress, and Wong’s clear affection for her qualities of sweetness and decency can’t justify casting her in a role demanding expressiveness.
The supporting players, meanwhile, are strong, with Strathairn and Portman the standouts, but their characters play like American-culture cutouts. In the Weisz-Strathairn segment, you half expect Big Daddy to appear.
Also noteworthy is Chan Marshall (singer-songwriter Cat Power), who has an impressive cameo as Jeremy’s ex and is present, as is Jones, on the bluesy-jazzy soundtrack.
My Blueberry Nights **1/2
Starring Norah Jones, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz
Written by Wong Kar Wai, Lawrence Block
Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Running time 1 hour, 30 minutes