Wong Kar Whatever

My Blueberry Nights is beautiful, confusing.

Today marks the American release of My Blueberry Nights, the first English-language film by director Wong Kar-wai, reviewed below. Also in Slate this week, Grady Hendrix explains how the new film continues a trend of predictability in Wong’s recent work.

Jude Law and Norah Jones in My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar-wai’s first English-language film, My Blueberry Nights (The Weinstein Co.), is as lushly beautiful as its sloe-eyed heroine, Elizabeth, played by pop singer Norah Jones. But like Elizabeth, it’s also maddeningly superficial and, in the end, something of a blank. In the spirit of Wong’s biggest hit in the United States, In the Mood for Love (2000), this fanciful take on the American road movie is almost militantly romantic. “Swoon!” it orders, and by moments (as elevated trains rush by in the New York twilight or ice cream is kissed off sleeping lips), we do. But going weak in the knees isn’t something most audiences enjoy doing on command. In between the slo-mo Häagen-Dazs smooches and the pensive scribbling of postcards, I prefer when my onscreen lovers occasionally do or say something interesting.

I’ve never quite gotten the point of Wong Kar-wai, a cult Chinese director over whom many do, in fact, swoon. In the Mood for Love made me covet a closet full of custom-made cheongsams and a recording of Nat King Cole singing “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” but I can’t for the life of me remember anything about the story. Even so, that film had a resolute purity of tone that convinced you Wong knew exactly what he was doing. My Blueberry Nights feels much more hesitant and awkward, which may be a problem of translation (the script was co-written by Wong and crime writer Lawrence Block) or a function of Jones’ first-time acting performance. There’s a curious mismatch between the surface of the movie and what lies beneath it. Wong’s technique is layered and detailed like a couture gown, but the story it hangs on is as generic as a seamstress’s dress form.

After some opening shots of blueberry pie a la mode, shot in such extreme close-up that its glistening, pulsing surface might belong to a beating heart or a naked human body, we meet Jones’ Elizabeth as she storms into a run-down New York diner owned by a British expat, Jeremy (Jude Law). Elizabeth is hunting for her boyfriend, who’s left her for another woman. Soon, she and Jeremy are meeting up regularly at closing time to commiserate about lost loves and gobble leftover desserts—she likes the blueberry pie, he prefers the meringue.

Unlimited free pastry served by Jude Law would seem like a pretty good rebound option, but Elizabeth must think she can do better. She takes off on a cross-country bus trip, using different versions of her name in each city—Lizzie, Betty, Beth. In Memphis, she works as a cocktail waitress and befriends Arnie (David Strathairn), an alcoholic cop who comes in every night to celebrate “my last night of drinking.”

As the sodden and self-destructive Arnie, Strathairn is amazing—when isn’t he?—but his presence feels inorganic to the movie. Similarly, Rachel Weisz, as the cop’s estranged and promiscuous wife, delivers two drunken monologues that, however impressive, seem lifted from an audition tape. These performances are embedded in the film like colored shards of glass in one of those sidewalk mosaics; you’re aware in each scene that you’re having a David Strathairn or Rachel Weisz acting moment, rather than moving deeper into a credible fictional world. It’s possible that this artificial quality was a deliberate choice on Wong’s part, but if so, to what purpose? The movie alternates between stark psychological realism and the stylized angst of a music video or a perfume commercial. At the height of Weisz’s anguished speech, you find yourself thinking, “Where can I get that necklace?”

Natalie Portman, as a poker whiz who latches onto Elizabeth in a casino near Vegas, fits in better, perhaps because she’s a less subtle actor than Strathairn and Weisz. Her Leslie, a hardboiled bleach blonde with a vulnerable core, is a straight-up salute to a million film noir predecessors, and she inhabits the stereotype with unapologetic comic gusto. The Vegas stretch of the movie is momentum-free to the point of inertia, but we’re still sorry when Leslie’s pink-manicured hand waves goodbye from the window of her Jaguar convertible.

When your plot hinges on the main character’s journey of self-discovery, a dull leading actor can bring down the whole show. My father likes to contend that movie acting is the easiest art; Norah Jones’ performance here is a compelling refutation of that claim. There’s nothing overtly wrong with her line readings or facial expressions, and she’s as lovely as the day is long. As a singer, Jones is a gifted explorer of this same emotional terrain: wistfulness, longing, heartbreak. But as an actor, she fails to make Elizabeth someone we want to know better. Meanwhile, another singer, Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power), packs a whole nightclub’s worth of smoky mystery into her one scene as Jude Law’s returning ex-girlfriend.

All of the above reads as if My Blueberry Nights is a drag to watch. But, in fact, I spent the whole 90 minutes in a state of bemused, vaguely pleasurable anticipation, always hoping for the next gorgeous image to come along and sweep me away. And despite its predictability, and despite even the lack of chemistry between Jones and Law, the final blueberry kiss did just that.