Filming the blues
My Blueberry Nights
It’s the acting debut of singer Norah Jones and the first English-language picture from the esteemed Hong Kong filmmaker Kar Wai Wong (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express). And yet, even with a strong musical component and a cast that includes Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz, this moody, meandering, sumptuously atmospheric movie seems doomed to remain hidden in plain view.
I went to see it primarily out of an interest in the director’s work, and came away feeling pleased and impressed, if not wildly enthusiastic. It may be the least impressive of Wong’s films so far, but its 90-plus minutes of enchanted images and drifting reverie-like story are full of rewards for the attentive viewer.
The storyline is simple and obvious, but the movie itself is not. A young woman (Jones), dumped by her boyfriend in New York, takes her heartbreak on a journey west, with lengthy stopovers first in Memphis and later in Nevada (Las Vegas and the vicinity). Despite the apparent road-movie premise most of the action occurs indoors (in cafes, restaurants and casinos) and at night, which is characteristic of Wong. A lot of that action is interior in another sense as well—Jones (and the people she hangs out with) brooding, venting, remembering, musing.
The pervasively musical soundtrack—also typical for Wong—has soulful ballads alternating with Ry Cooder’s electric-guitar score, and the movie as a whole is itself a kind of blues number, with a half dozen characters slow-dancing their ways through an assortment of lost loves and other sad stories, all of them familiar and seemingly ageless.
Jones’ Elizabeth (aka Betty, aka Lizzy) provides the line for each of those stories, as her journey brings her into the mostly temporary company of various other bluesy folk—an extravagantly alcoholic policeman (Strathairn) and his ferociously estranged wife (Weisz), a flamboyantly neurotic bottle-blonde and professional gambler (Portman) in Nevada, and the amiably attentive café proprietor (Law) with whom she commiserates at length before even leaving New York.
Portman gives the film’s most striking performance, while the others, Jones included, provide pungent iconic support. Jones’ chief musical contribution to the film comes at the end, as her song “The Story” plays over the closing credits. The song and her renderings of it (I found a couple of them on YouTube) would serve equally well as an introduction, or at least a prelude, to Wong’s distinctively engaging movie.