A thin slice of pie

Norah Jones pretty much acts out that “Don’t Know Why” song of hers.

Norah Jones pretty much acts out that “Don’t Know Why” song of hers.

Rated 3.0

Pop music sensation Norah Jones makes her movie debut in My Blueberry Nights, which is also a debut of sorts for Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, making his first full feature in English.

Jones plays Elizabeth, a wounded soul frequenting a late-night Manhattan cafe owned by Jeremy (Jude Law). Elizabeth has been dumped by her unseen, two-timing boyfriend and needs Jeremy’s manly shoulder to cry on. Since she only seems to drop in during the wee small hours, Jeremy has plenty of time to spend with her, and he introduces her to his house specialty, blueberry pie à la mode. One night, as she sleeps with her head on the counter, Jeremy kisses the ice cream off her lips, and we know he’s helplessly in love.

Perhaps Elizabeth, even in her sleep, senses it too, and is still too wounded to face it, because soon she’s gone, hitting the road on a rather jerky cross-country odyssey, from which she drops Jeremy the occasional letter or postcard without a return address. First she lands in Memphis, Tenn., where she works as a diner waitress by day and a cocktail waitress by night, witnessing the crumbling marriage of nice-guy cop Arnie (David Strathairn) and slatternly Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz), and Arnie’s resultant slow suicide-by-alcoholism.

From there, Elizabeth moves on to a Nevada cardroom, again waitressing in the coffee shop. There she meets Leslie (Natalie Portman), an inveterate gambler who entices Elizabeth into backing her in a high-stakes game and, later, joining her on the road to see another backer in Vegas. In the end, Elizabeth’s travels will lead her back to the beginning, where, like T.S. Eliot, she will know the place for the first time.

Just a glance at that list of actors is enough to get us interested (and by the way, except for Frankie Faison as the owner of that Memphis bar and Chan Marshall/Cat Power in a brief cameo as Jeremy’s ex-lover, that’s pretty much the entire cast), and My Blueberry Nights has director Wong’s customary visual lushness, bordering almost on fetishism.

Wong is more comfortable in the cramped urban clutter of New York and amid the seedy city bricks of Memphis than he is when the action moves to the wide-open Nevada desert; he dashes through the road scenes in fast motion and without relish, as if the destination rather than the trip were the point (reversing the usual priorities of road pictures). But when the action is enclosed—and the smaller the room, the better—Wong revels. Everything is viewed in saturated colors with an electric vibrancy, like a scene from Edward Hopper filtered through Wayne Thiebaud’s eyes.

The movie is never less than arresting to look at, but the script by Wong and crime novelist Lawrence Block is an aggregation of set pieces that border on clichés—and occasionally sneak over the border. The first scene with Jeremy leads us to expect the movie to be Elizabeth’s story, but the story, it turns out, is not about Elizabeth or what she does; it’s about what she watches other people doing and what happens to them.

This gives Strathairn, Weisz and Portman moments to shine (especially Weisz in a drunken confession to Elizabeth about her marriage, which Weisz delivers in a sodden medley of anger, disappointment and remorse), but Elizabeth herself remains a blank slate on which we are invited—indeed, commanded—to see whatever we’d like.

Can Norah Jones act? Well, maybe, but here she doesn’t really have to. All that is asked of her is to let the camera love her (which it does, to distraction) and not undermine the impression when she speaks. That may not sound like much, and Jones may prove to be no threat to Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep, but it’s not nothing. Look at Linda Ronstadt—at her peak, she was the most photogenic woman since Garbo, but she never made it in movies because she blew it every time she opened her mouth without singing.

In My Blueberry Nights, Jones is more a presence than a character, but a presence that complements the melancholy hopefulness of her songs; she looks exactly the way she sounds in her music. And while the movie may be less than the sum of its parts, some of those parts are wonderful.