Elizabeth's heart is broken. For solace, she drops in late at night a few times at Jeremy's diner for blueberry pie a la mode; they talk. Once, he watchers her sleep, her head on the counter. Abruptly, she leaves New York City to get away from her pain. She works a couple of jobs in Memphis. There, a heart-broken cop is drinking himself into oblivion, his ex occasionally showing up where he drinks and Lizzy works. Then, she's in Nevada, working at a casino where she uses her savings (she wants a car) to stake Leslie, a busted gambler, in a high rollers' game. After, Beth drives Leslie to Vegas where Leslie's estranged father lives. Broken relationships. What about Jeremy? Written by
I'm not sure whether that night really happened, or if it was just another dream." --the movie trailer.
Wong Kar Wai, the Hong Kong auteur, has made his first movie all in English and set in the USA--and built around Grammy Award singer Norah Jones. More coherent than many of Wong's efforts, it's been accused of being a "trifle"--or is it just that the plot seems silly now that it's all clear and in English? Like all Wong's work, this is a film that's romantic, sad, and gorgeous to look at from first to last and full of strong, catchy pop-blues-country music (Ry Couder did the score). The beautiful Ms. Jones's character, variously known as Elizabeth, Lizzie, Beth, or Betty, turns up at a New York café run by Jeremy (Jude Law), a guy from Manchester, England, drenched in love-longing because her man has dumped her for somebody else. Jeremy has a jar full of keys from patrons, each with a story, and Lizzie gives him hers, hoping her boyfriend will pick them up again. Jeremy has his own lost love, Katya (Cat Power); she'll turn up later on just to say goodbye. Jeremy's keys stand for doors he himself doesn't want to close.
Though Lizzie's boyfriend never turns up, Jeremy and Lizzie begin to have late night chats and sugar orgies, she eating a piece of blueberry pie with ice cream--picking blueberry because that's the pie that's always left over at the end of the day.
There's a fight in the café, and Jeremy plays around with a surveillance camera, which he seems to use as a kind of diary. Soon he will be alone, and Lissie will be away.
This time instead of improvising as in the past, which among other things contributed to his last film, 2046, a kind of summation of his Chinese themes and characters, taking five years to finish, Wong made up his story, with Norah in mind, and then had it turned into a finished screenplay (subject to plenty of revisions, of course) by crime novelist Lawrence Block. This one had a low budget and took just a couple of months to make. Shooting time, that is. It really took a year to do the editing, but Wong had that finished, to everyone's surprise, just in time for My Blueberry NIghts to be shown as the opener at Cannes last year.
Like Wong's other films, this one encapsulates several different stories. The second one comes when Lizzie decides to "cross the street" to revisit Jeremy by the "longest way possible," which turns out to be a trip to Memphis and Nevada and points in between, thousands of miles and nearly a year--a time of self-discovery, no doubt (though she doesn't observably change), and a period to avoid the inevitable romance with Jeremy. Landing in Memphis Lizzie works at two jobs, saving up money to buy a car. At a bar she encounters the drama of the drunken cop Arnie Copeland (David Strathairn) and his estranged wife, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). Both are fine, acting their heads off in scenes heady with barroom dysfunction. For once, an on-screen drunk admits to going to Alcoholics Anonymous--and collecting a beginner's chip over and over and over. He throws the chips on the bar and they make a satisfying chink. But Arnie comes to a bad end, though Sue Lynne, despite rejecting him, keeps his tab open as she lights out for the territory. Through all of this Lizzie constantly sends Jeremy a stream of postcards that are a kind of intimate diary, and he desperately tries to track her down by phone and letter, without success.
Every young filmmaker dreams of making a road movie, Wong Kar Wai has said. Though he's now fifty, this is a kind of new beginning, or felt like one to him. But, he said, this movie isn't really a road movie; it's a vacation. And it's not about a journey, but about distance. Maybe the trip across the street for Lizzie is all a dream--one by Sam Shepherd, working with David Lynch. Sue Lynne gives Lizzie a generous donation for being Arnie's barmaid too, and she lights out for Nevada. There she's working at a gambling dive where she meets a young woman named Leslie (Nathalie Portman) who's a pro, and they wind up leaving town together. Eventually, Lizzie ends up back at Jeremy's café, and he's waiting for her.
Coming after As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood For Love, and 2046, Wong's excursion into America is completely consistent and logical. Those who seem disappointed, may miss the ellipses and madcap improv of the earlier films, and may have failed to notice that they were full of pop novel gimmicks and romantic cuteness. Wong's sentimentality passes muster because of cryptic story lines, poetic voice-overs, hypnotic uses of music, and adventurous camera work--mostly by Christopher Doyle, here replaced by the half-French and wholly brilliant Darius Khondji --made infinitely rich by complex editing. My Blueberry Nights is full of criss-cross angles, fast overlaps, closeups so shallow atmospheric Americana may go unnoticed, till a lovely panorama flits by. Color is typically warm and dense. The effect is to make every frame a pleasure.
Reciting Wong Kar Wai's list of features brings home how he single-handedly made the Eighties and Nineties an exciting cinematic time, from the first days when you had to go to a theater on the edge of Chinatown, and then you watched badly subtitled Hong Kong prints found in esoteric video shops, to the time when Tarantino's Miramax label, Rolling Thunder, distributed Chungking Express in a good print with clear titles and the secret was out.
Maybe Wong never did anything better than Days of Being Wild, the first film in which he became truly himself. But what does it matter? The quintessential stylist, he cannot make a film that doesn't give rich aesthetic pleasure.
US opening date April 18, 2008.
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