(Movie Review by Kevin Nickelson) Have you ever been to a coffee shop or diner and noticed one of the desserts under glass that’s never been touched? The donuts that look like they’ve been there a few days? Or, maybe it’s a blueberry pie that stands alone, ignored by the very suitors it targets, the hungry human patron. It seems like a metaphor should be inserted here. Ok, the pie is a metaphor representing every boy or girl forced to walk as a victim away from a busted relationship. They feel abandoned and emotionally drained. They question their ability to love again and whether they feel they can be loved again. At least that is the theme heavily explored (a blueberry pie even shows as a symbol in some scenes) by Chinese director Kar Wai Wong in “My Blueberry Nights”, a 2007 release from Studio Canal, Block 2 Pictures, and Jet Tone Production.
The story revolves around Elizabeth (a surprisingly charismatic Norah Jones), who discovers that her boyfriend has been cheating on her and has been taking his new lady to a New York diner run by Jeremy (played with understated charm by Jude Law). In a fit of anger, Elizabeth leaves her keys she shared with her boyfriend with Jeremy. She returns to the diner several times over the next few weeks and appears to be striking a friendship with Jeremy when she decides to leave New York and find who she is.
Elizabeth’s journey takes her to Memphis, Tennessee where, while working two jobs to pay for a car, she meets two people who, like herself, are emotionally broken from failed relationships. Arnie (the ever-reliable David Strathairn) is a cop who refuses to believe his wife Sue (Rachel Weisz) left him a long time ago and uses alcohol to drown his pain.
Leslie (the underrated Natalie Portman) is a gambler whose addiction masks serious relationship problems with men and, in particular, her father. After a series of events, Elizabeth ends up traveling with Leslie to Las Vegas at the request of Leslie’s father, who lies dying in a Vegas hospital.
Meanwhile, Jeremy realizes that he has fallen in love with Elizabeth and begins a desperate search to find her through phone calls and postcard mailings. Will the two find each other again and give love a second chance? Can Elizabeth find the definition of who she is in time to see that another man very close to her loves her?
Director Kar Wai Wong should be applauded for both his keen sense of visuals and his stubborn determination to make as much of the tried-and-true romantic drama formula as original and fresh as possible. His resume does include the wonderfully done asian romantic drama “In the Mood For Love” (2000) after all. However, he can also be derided for an over-reliance on some elements that are now clichés even in indie films: odd lighting and camera angles, speeding up and slowing down of film, and quick cut edits mixed with symbolism shots (attempting to show meaning by focusing the camera on an inanimate object, plant, animal). This overuse by Wong is minimal, but it overshadows the story at points to the film’s detriment. The mark of a great independent director is one who achieves the balance of style and story. A nearly impossible task to accomplish, which is why there are few great indie directors out there.
Wong does manage to draw impressive work from a terrific ensemble cast. This is a cast of actors who are less stars and more artists. The actors here are devoted to their characters so completely that every nuance of personality is brought to the fore. Norah Jones brings many layers to Elizabeth, painting her with frustration, bitterness, defiance, inner strength of self-reliance and, ultimately, a sense of hope for her future. Impressive for a newcomer to acting. Law is equally fine as the love-lorn Jeremy, showing the same flawed nice-guy he has honed in movies like the recent “Alfie” remake as well as “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”. He taps into vulnerability as well as any film actor working. David Strathairn is one of the finest character stars working and he steals every scene as the doomed Arnie. Strathairn plops Arnie in a stew mix of loneliness, self-pity, and bitterness and makes him a very believable human train wreck. Add in solid turns by Portman as a pathetic soul with a cool exterior as a front and Weisz as the frustrated and desperate Sue, and you get a performing treat.
“My Blueberry Nights” also features a beautiful original score by Ry Cooder (including several memorably bluesy numbers performed by star Norah Jones herself), striking camera work by cinematographer Darius Khondji, and a script filled with perceptive takes on the realities of love and the pitfalls of relationships. All of these combine to make for a viewing experience not unlike the film’s subject matter: strong, satisfying, yet not without a few potholes in the road.
The dvd contains a wonderful “Making of….” Featurette, an in-depth Q&A with director Wong, a still gallery, and the full theatrical trailer. Pay particular notice to the Q&A, as you really get an insight as to what makes Wong tick as a director as well as his fondness for the relationship film formula.
“My Blueberry Nights”, like the blueberry pie sitting by itself on the diner counter, is an under-appreciated treat that deserves to be tried at least once. Heck, go ahead and devour the whole thing. You’ll enjoy all the richness without the guilt or the blueberry stains down the front of your shirt!
Kar Wai Wong (director) / Kar Wai Wong(screenplay)
CAST: Jude Law … Jeremy
Norah Jones … Elizabeth
Frankie Faison … Travis
Rachel Weisz … Sue Lynne Copeland
Benjamin Kanes … Randy
Cat Power … Katya
Natalie Portman … Leslie