Wong Kar-Wai's films aren't just intoxicating; they're intoxicated. They deploy slow motion, fast motion, freeze-frames and other visual flourishes not to highlight pivotal narrative moments, but to italicize feelings—some sorrowful or profound, others fleeting, playful, sensual. His frames are packed with chromatic and textural details and often separated from the viewer by environmental scrims (curtains, door frames, windowpanes, human blurs of foreground motion). Wong compounds disorientation by layering images atop each another in a series of luxurious dissolves. He glosses over dramatic housekeeping and fixates on tremors of emotion. His films seem to be struggling to remember themselves.
Wong's sense of artistic priorities—his art, period—is the true subject of My Blueberry Nights. It's spare, relaxed, playful and very, very loose. Coming on the heels of the symphonic, Proustian romantic drama 2046 (arguably his most ambitious movie) and his stunning segment of Eros, "The Hand" (surely his most precise) it's the directorial equivalent of a musician following up back-to-back marquee performances with an after-hours jam session. Wong's band-mates are his composer, Ry Cooder; his cinematographer, Darius Khondji (shooting with very long lenses that give the images a silkscreen quality); an inconsistent but game-for-anything cast, and a soundtrack of typically eclectic, rueful pop songs (including Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" and Cassandra Wilson's plaintive cover of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon").
In place of a Syd Field-approved three act story, My Blueberry Nights offers a series of moments (some pivotal, others fleeting) in the lives of various, tangentially unrelated characters. The moments are threaded together via the experiences of a New York coffee shop waitress named Elizabeth (Norah Jones), who tries to get over a breakup by living and working in other cities, witnessing and/or participating in other characters' dramas. But Elizabeth's experiences less a dramatic through-line than an emotional echo chamber: a means for Wong to simultaneously explore one character's self-reckoning and a second character's reaction to it. (Every other character seems to have lived more, and suffered more, than Elisabeth has.)
Throughout, Wong directs like a musician, living for (and in) the moment, collapsing time and space and expanding and deepening feelings. Each section of the film is like a self-contained track spotlighting a different character's hard-won enlightenment. The first half-hour focuses on Elizabeth's burgeoning relationship with a Manhattan coffee shop owner named Jeremy (Jude Law). At first, Elizabeth's feelings and experiences take precedence; then Wong and his co-screenwriter, moonlighting crime novelist Lawrence Block, focus on Jeremy. After Elisabeth moves to Memphis and becomes a bartender, the film refocuses on one of her regular customers, an alcoholic cop, Arnie (David Strathairn) driven to rage by his cheating wife, Sue Lynn (Rachel Weisz); after this thread plays out, the film re-focuses yet again on Sue Lynn's reaction to Arnie's disintegration, and her frank assessment of her marriage and her role in destroying it. Then it shifts emphasis yet again when Elisabeth gets a job as a waitress at a Nevada casino and gets drawn into a probably-scam by a down-on-her-luck gambler named Leslie (Natalie Portman, boasting a deep-fried Southern accent and wearing what appears to be Ann-Margaret's 1980s hand-me-downs). As the movie unreels, Elisabeth and Jeremy go on about their lives; other characters slip in and out, pausing just long enough to illuminate an aspect of existence—the necessity and impossibility of new beginnings (Arnie), for instance, or selfishness and cruelty's destructive effect on love (Sue Lynn). The film eventually circles back to Elisabeth and Jeremy and implies that they've learned something, or that they should have learned something. But what?
The answer can be found in the construction of My Blueberry Nights, a movie for which the phrase "style is substance" might have been coined. To get philosophical for a moment—and it's Wong, so why not?—let's assume, as I think Wong does, that there are two realities. One is scientific, logical, mathematical, quantifiable, or at least we've decided it is; it's the world of anniversaries and birthdays and holidays, years and weeks and minutes, latitudes and longitudes, mile markers and return addresses. The other world—internal, emotional; the world behind our eyes and ears—is oblivious to calendars and measurements. It notices what it wants to notice and feels what it wants to feel when it wants to feel it, and ironically—wonderfully—it's the place where life actually happens to us, the place where we register experience and collect the visceral sensations we call memories. This is the place where all of Wong's movies occur—thus the willful scrambling, even obliteration, of comprehensible time and space, and the prizing of images, sounds and fleeting emotions over, well, pretty much everything that commercial narrative cinema tells us is important. A director's choice of what to emphasize tells you what, exactly, he believes is worth paying attention to; in My Blueberry Nights, it's the play of streetlights on a coffee shop window, the layout of a pub interior, the metal-and-neon bustle of a casino floor; the curve of Elizabeth's forehead, nose and chin in close-up, and the improbable ease with which she navigates pavement in heels; the pleasant aural sensation of a country-western song laid atop the murmur of barroom conversation; the distinct textures of a half-full beer glass, a stack of poker chips, a slice of blueberry pie swimming in cream. ("The great fucks that you may have had," asks loquacious salesman Ricky Roma in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. "What do you remember about them? I don't know. For me, I'm saying, what is is, it's probably not the orgasm. Some broad's forearm on your neck, something her eyes did. There was a sound she made...or, me, lying, in the, I'll tell you: me lying in bed; the next day she brought me café au lait. She gives me a cigarette, my balls feel like concrete. Eh? What I'm saying, what is our life? It's looking forward or it's looking back. And that's our life. That's it. Where is the moment?")
Am I projecting onto Wong's film and misreading his intentions? I don't think so. When the characters talk, they're less likely to reiterate present-tense goals than to reminisce about the past, project the future or wax philosophical. (Jeremy's appreciation of blueberry pie, which he characterizes as the least-requested but most special dessert on his menu, might be this movie's answer to the pinot noir manifesto in Sideways.) The movie's sections are partitioned by title screens noting elapsed time and distance, but the information is so unrevealing of the characters' predicaments that you might as well be looking at bar tabs or recipes. Nights takes place in New York, Memphis and somewhere in Nevada, yet so much of the action occurs indoors that the whole thing might as well have been made on Hong Kong soundstages. The movie has a keen sense of cultural differences but no sense of place. (In this aspect, Nights faintly evokes Wim Wenders' prescient 1976 feature The American Friend, a international espionage thriller whose final third deliberately confused us as to what city the characters were in—the better to suggest the blur of life in a globalized era.) The film's last section sets up a make-or-break poker game for which Leslie borrows money from Elisabeth, then cuts away from the outcome of the contest to show Leslie storming out of the casino, defeated and demoralized (the moment of her loss apparently deemed unworthy of note by the director); then the two women go on the road for a non-adventure that accomplishes nothing except to set up Elisabeth's return to New York and her inevitable reunion with Jeremy. ("Wong seems to take no interest at all in settings that have provided great inspiration to many filmmakers," complains Variety film critic Todd McCarthy, never pausing to wonder why that might be.)
There's no sense pretending that My Blueberry Nights is a towering addition to Wong's filmography. The stakes are quite low throughout, and the movie's pace is as boozy-meandering as the tempo of its soundtrack selections. (Cooder's instrumental tracks recall his work on Wenders' melancholy, Sam Shepard-scripted road movie Paris, Texas.) Jones is a stunning camera subject and never less than likable, but she lacks the technique to suggest a complex interior life. Law is, as usual, gorgeous and charming but not especially exciting. Weisz's performance is a touch shrill, her "southern" accent a botch; she only rallies during Sue Lynn's confession. Portman is livelier here than she's been in some time—the character's brassiness liberates her—but the role still doesn't quite seem to fit. (Was it written with an older actress in mind?) Of the major players, only Strathairn makes a deep impression; few actors are better at playing men coming to terms with failure. Yet if you're willing to ease into Wong's mindset—that of a barfly who's in such a good mood that he doesn't care what he's drinking or what's on the jukebox or how many hours are left till closing time—none of the aforementioned flaws feel like flaws. My Blueberry Nights seems to be unfolding in a world of perpetual night—one in which the darkness is illuminating. It's an exploration of interiors, geographical and emotional, and it seems acutely alive—as if the movie itself is a luminous being that has seen the world and survived heartbreak and resolved to savor each remaining second of its existence, however long or short it may be.