I suspect I like Wong Kar Wai’s first English language film, My Blueberry Nights, more than I should—almost to the point of feeling protective of the movie. I certainly know that it’s a classic case of a film that’s “not for everybody”; the fact that critics are split almost exactly down the middle (45 positive and 47 negative reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site) attests to this. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most movies of genuine merit do not meet with universal acclaim, and Wong’s film has genuine merit. I’m equally prepared to admit that this is a case of a film that just happens to suit me (in fact, it haunts me)—and I can see why someone else might not like it.
When Wong’s In the Mood for Love (the last of his movies to play locally) came out, I wrote that it was “a film made up almost entirely of subtle touches and things not said, from which we are made to understand the feelings and motivations of its main characters.” I could have opened this review with that exact same statement. The two works are very similar in many ways—and very different in others. Where In the Mood for Love was claustrophobic (as befits its overcrowded Hong Kong setting), My Blueberry Nights is expansive (as befits the size of its canvas, America).
There’s more actual plot to In the Mood, but that’s partly a cultural issue. The notions of honor that keep its main characters apart are not inherent in Western society—and based on the more hopeful ending of Blueberry Nights, it’s hard not to conclude that Wong views this as a positive thing. I’m convinced that Wong’s insistence on making a romantic drama with an upbeat ending is also one of the primary reasons many critics are dismissing Blueberry Nights as insubstantial. (The critical point of view that the depressing is intrinsically more important is always with us.)
The story’s pretty simple. A young woman, Elizabeth (singer Norah Jones in a credible debut performance), discovers that her boyfriend had brought another woman into the cafe they’d previously frequented together. This fact she gleans from Jeremy (the underrated Jude Law, in a terrific performance), the cafe’s owner, who identifies people by what they order. After ostensibly breaking up with her faithless swain, she haunts the cafe, which is in the neighborhood where her ex lives. She and Jeremy strike up a friendship in late-night talks over desserts (hence the title).
Jeremy falls in love with her, though it’s never clear whether she quite knows this—and it doesn’t matter anyway, because she has too much baggage to be rid of to feel anything but the weight of her past, which she endeavors to shed on a solo road trip across the country. That’s the essence of the story—with stopovers in Memphis and Las Vegas, not to mention various symbolic, romantic touches involving keys and blueberry pie—and the whole question is whether Elizabeth will find herself and in so doing find Jeremy.
It’s essentially a gloriously romantic film made by a very romantic filmmaker who can see beauty where none supposedly exists. In his review in the New York Times, A.O. Scott complains, “Mr. Wong and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, make America look so pretty that you may have trouble recognizing it,” further suggesting that Wong has art-directed the country. Not only does this seem wrong-headed to me, it completely misses the point—and suggests to me that Scott has looked at America so long he has ceased to be able to see it.
Wong hasn’t art-directed America, he has simply edited it down to the beauty that does exist in his settings, focused on those elements and presented them in his film. He has captured the world that exists within the world that we inhabit daily. Wong allows us to see that world in his stunning widescreen images of heavily saturated color. He also infuses his soundtrack with a similar tone. I don’t really believe that there’s a bar in Memphis where Otis Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness” crops up on the jukebox at the most appropriate moment—especially not more than once—but it gets to a mood of truth far better than conventional-minded realism ever could. At bottom, this—and the possibility of love—is what Blueberry Nights is all about. If that idea appeals to you, then this beautifully haunting film may well also. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, including violence, drinking and smoking.