Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-Wai always comes across as a sensualist more than a storyteller. His most effective films, such as Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and 2046, ignore the usual narrative rules and instead soak up atmosphere. Snaky, voluptuous music underscores lovingly photographed images of food, clothes and bodies, with human desire pulsing just below the surface.
Unfortunately, Kar-Wai never seems to get in the mood for My Blueberry Nights, his first English-language film. Although it contains echoes of the director's trademark obsessions, My Blueberry Nights feels vacant without his signature vibe.
Kar-Wai cast pop singer Norah Jones as Elizabeth, a young New Yorker who feels adrift when she catches her boyfriend cheating on her. Elizabeth strikes up an after-hours friendship and flirtation with Jeremy (Jude Law), manager of a hole-in-the-wall bakery, and they commiserate over leftover pie in nights that seem to blur together. My Blueberry Night's most memorable shots show almost microscopic close-ups of white ice cream melting over ruddy pie filling that you don't have to be a sexpert to understand.
Rather than hook up with Jeremy, Elizabeth rambles across America. In Memphis, she witnesses a codependent relationship between an alcoholic policeman (David Strathairn) and his adulterous ex (Rachel Weisz). In Nevada, she befriends a comely young gambler (Natalie Portman) with some pronounced father issues. In between, she and Jeremy maintain a tenuous long-distance relationship, but grief tends to trump lust as the film's dominant feeling.
One wonders if Kar-Wai intended My Blueberry Nights as a meditation on America's peculiar take on such universal obsessions as unrequited love, sweets, alcohol and gambling. Strathairn's Alcoholics Anonymous chips find a visual echo in Portman's poker chips. Though the film takes place in archetypal American places, it feels sterile as the dialogue sounds stilted: "What happened? Life happened." In Kar-Wai's other films, his concerns appear both universal and rooted in a particular place, but My Blueberry Nights substitutes bland angst for insight into the human condition, whether distinctly American or otherwise.
My Blueberry Nights would have benefited from a stronger, subtler screen actress than Jones at its center. It's not that she's unlikable or unwelcome; she just doesn't give Elizabeth a rich enough inner life to justify building a film around her. At least Jones has the excuse of being an amateur: Weisz has an Oscar, and she gives a dull performance worthy of community theater. To stay alert during My Blueberry Nights, you're going to need some full-strength coffee to go with your pie.