The subtle, chaste and lonely longing that made Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love so serene, so distinctly exotic and foreign, seems ill-fitting for an American movie romance. Wai's My Blueberry Nights comes off as an unhappy, or at least undercooked, blend of East and West, an American road romance, of sorts, without real romance, a Chinese courtship melodrama without an Asian presence.
Save for Norah Jones, the daughter of sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Jones is the lovesick, bland and understated leading lady who confesses her lover's betrayal to a New York café proprietor (Jude Law), then goes on a cross-country odyssey to get her life back together. She waits tables in Memphis, where she crosses paths with a heartbroken cop (David Strathairn) and his angry not-quite-ex (Rachel Weisz). She waits more tables in Ely, Nev., where a too-young/too glib gambler (Natalie Portman) talks her out of her life's savings for stake money to a poker game she is sure she can win.
And all the while, ”Lizzy-Beth-Elizabeth“ (Jones) writes long letters with no return address to the sympathetic café owner, who desperately wants to track her down. What, she's never heard of texting or e-mail?
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Jones, so sensually understated on record, isn't an interesting screen presence, despite her striking looks and baggage that suggests ”vulnerability.“ She and her character are such a void at the heart of the film that Oscar-winner Weisz, by using nothing more than a few strands of hair over one eye, can steal her scenes with Jones. Weisz has fire. Strathairn is rarely good when he's playing this unlikable. Portman is a perky presence in her scenes, though all the blond dye and cleavage in the world don't quite transform this woman-child into the brassy, worldly poker player she's supposed to be.
And Law? He smokes. Magnificently. He also serves up the blueberry pie that is the title hook of this romance.
Putting Hollywood stars and a Hollywood studio behind a famous foreign filmmaker might not be the best way to assess his or her true gifts, but it's probably the fairest. Blueberry is as keenly observed as any of Wai's films. But there's a reason we haven't been treated to Hollywood ”versions“ of the slow In the Mood for Love or the watching-paint-dry tedium of 2046. Blueberry's pacing is one serious shortcoming. A trite script with odd detours and a less-than-coherent theme is another.
It's not the pie that is meant to make this watchable, it is Wai's greatest gift, observing people, little slices of life in New York, Memphis or Nevada. Unfortunately in this case, those slices don't add up to a meal, or even dessert.