"I don't know how to begin, because the story's been told before," croons Nora Jones on the soundtrack during the opening of My Blueberry Nights, and it seems a similar problem afflicts Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai, who makes his English language debut with this gorgeous if slight saga about aimless Elizabeth's (Jones) search for herself via a cross-country journey. It's not so much that Wong doesn't know how to commence this specific tale but, instead, that he doesn't know how to start anew, as his latest proves a minor stateside revisitation (or, perhaps more accurately, a rehash) of his favorite thematic and aesthetic preoccupations.
Despite being shot by Darius Khondji and not the director's longtime collaborator Christopher Doyle, the film offers up a handy compendium of his favorite visual signatures - the smeary slow-motion, the hyper-vibrant, sharp-and-soft color palette, framing and tracking shots that dreamily highlight the distance between individuals - while his narrative continues a career-long obsession with the intricacies of romance and the imperative role of memory (regarding both love and loss). It's as light, fluffy and attractive as the blueberry pies that Manhattan café owner Jeremy (Jude Law) serves Elizabeth late at night, but ultimately, also, far less satisfying.
In New York, Elizabeth wanders into Jeremy's diner suffering from fresh heartbreak, thus making her a kindred soul to the establishment's proprietor, who keeps the keys left behind by customers (including his own) in a jar because, if you throw away a key, then a door remains locked forever. Such gooey - and, it must be noted, chaste - stuff is what My Blueberry Nights is made of, as Wong doesn't go for passionate heat as much as a cozy atmosphere of amour that wraps you up like a downy comforter on a cold winter night. These two lonely people bond over comparable stories of misery and slices of blueberry pie. However, when Elizabeth falls asleep on the counter one night and Jeremy gently kisses her mouth to remove a speck of desert from her lips, her reaction is to up and bolt town. That her reaction to a Jude Law smooch is to flee the city is somewhat baffling, and might be more convincing if Jones was capable of conveying complex emotion. Yet in her maiden acting gig, she can barely pull off a single compelling expression, a not-inconsiderable shortcoming that's only alleviated by Wong's typical gift for shooting the female form in the most flattering manner possible.
This visual adoration of women doesn't end with Jones, since her journey to Memphis and Nevada embroils her in dramas involving Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman, the former radiating bluesy, floozy sultriness as the unhappy wife of a drunken cop (David Straitharn), and the latter - dolled up with a bad blonde die job and sheer, skimpy outfits - exuding ballsy Southern toughness as a not-so-skilled gambler. All three actresses are filmed like authentic American goddesses, which goes some way toward obscuring the fact that their characters are paper-thin constructs, with Elizabeth amounting to a blank, passive observer of other people's lives, and Weisz and Portman's beautifully miserable ladies coming off like rickety archetypes. Their lovelorn dilemmas, like the rapport between Jeremy and Elizabeth (which continues via postcards once she hits the open road), consistently come off as precious and trifling, which is dispiriting considering that Wong and Khondji make everything look and feel so rapturous and enticing that one wants to believe the proceedings are of consequence.
Although Elizabeth's East-to-West travels take her to one picturesque locale after another, My Blueberry Nights' action is largely confined to the inside of cafes, diners, and casinos, places that strive to capture a sense of iconographic Americana romanticism but, instead, seem like phony soundstage sets. This interiority, alas, doesn't extend to its protagonists. As Jeremy, Law flashes his magnetic smile and earnestly blathers on about love without ever, for a moment, appearing to be an actual human being from a recognizable time and place. Rather, he's merely a romantic fantasy charged with looking delectable while patiently awaiting Elizabeth's return. Jeremy's insubstantiality makes him somewhat intolerable, but more frustrating about Wong's film is that its center is occupied by Elizabeth, a cipher whose innocuousness hinders any real emotional engagement. Conceived as a plain-Jane spectator, the role doesn't do Jones any favors, since it often requires the singer to communicate sentiments silently, a task she's by and large unable to adequately execute. Like My Blueberry Nights, she's a looker with depressingly little going on beneath her striking façade.