Second-rate cinematography sours My Blueberry Nights

By Seth Satterlee

Today, My Blueberry Nights makes its American debut as director Wong Kar-Wai’s first English-language film. For the past year the film has been surrounded with an understandable amount of intrigue. Look at a poster or one of the previews, and it’s hard not to see why—Natalie Portman, Jude Law, and Rachel Weisz in a Wong Kar-Wai film? It’s a combination that will never fail to generate intrigue and rightful speculation.

Maintaining the same fitful mood of Wong’s other films, the narrative feels like a 90-minute ramble with a bit more clarity than his previous work. Beginning with its protagonist however, the film leaves much to be desired. Opening in a New York café, My Blueberry Nights tells the story of the heartbroken Elizabeth (Norah Jones), who finds herself in increasingly complicated circumstances as she makes her way across America in an attempt to run from her past. In her film debut, Jones fails to impress. Lacking the emotional ability she captures with her music, Jones’s acting is like uranium—it’s only survivable in small doses. The first 20 minutes of the film are its most frustrating: She and Jude Law occupy the main roles in the narrative, but as her character moves westward Jones becomes absorbed and almost forgotten in the midst of the surrounding cast. In fact, the acting is the film’s one redeeming quality. With fine showings from Law, Weisz, Portman, and particularly David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck)—with a particularly good portrayal of a self-deprecating alcoholic—the cast lives up to their end of the bargain. It’s Wong who never quite puts everything together.

Think what you will of Wong’s previous work, but his cinematography or shot choice has never been as poor as it is in Blueberry Nights. Wong at times seems to be using the Unsolved Mysteries reenactment style of low-quality slo-mo to capture the overly emotional scenes. And his extreme close-ups on blueberry pie and melted ice cream don’t help the film much either; they produce a nauseating effect after the third or fourth shot. These blunders were particularly disappointing considering Wong’s status as a tested cinematographer. Instead of launching Wong to Western fame—something he has never really accomplished—the film will be remembered as a failed attempt at a promising idea. The pieces of the jigsaw seemed to be available, but Wong simply couldn’t figure out how to make them connect.