"My Blueberry Nights" is Wong Kar Wai's first English-language movie. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also his worst movie. If you're in the mood for love and for this director's luxuriant self-indulgence, though, it's a tonic nonetheless - a gorgeously shot road-movie trifle that requires some of our better-known actors and singers to swoon through Wong's relocated wonderland.
The first obstacle to surmount is singer Norah Jones in the leading role of Elizabeth, a heartsore young wanderer. Jones approaches the part from the side, as if it were a microphone and she weren't sure about the audience. She has a lovely, wide-eyed screen presence, but her character's passivity is only partly intentional.
Jude Law, by contrast, comes at the camera head-on, as movie stars are supposed to do. He plays Jeremy, a New York diner proprietor - stay with me now - who's nursing a broken heart and keeping his fellow romantics' keys in a cookie jar on the counter. Burned by her boyfriend, Elizabeth bonds over blueberry pie with this fellow lost soul before hitting the highway, "taking the longest way to cross the street."
It's quite possible that if you translated Wong masterpieces like 1991's "Days of Being Wild" and 2000's "In the Mood for Love" into English, they too would sound like the musings of an over-romantic girl diarist. Yet "My Blueberry Nights" is held together - just - by the director's love of achy-breaky pop torch songs and multi-level camera shots. At times it seems on the verge of becoming the movie Francis Ford Coppola wanted "One From the Heart" to be.
And Wong keeps tossing out casting surprises as Elizabeth waitresses her way through the bars and greasy spoons of Middle America. David Strathairn as a mournful alcoholic Memphis cop, Rachel Weisz as his slattern wife (she walks into the movie like a curse laid on your heart), Natalie Portman as a Vegas hell-raiser on a losing streak. The performances are all over the map - Weisz rises to a particular pitch of badness at one point - and, ironically, it's another singer who makes the sharpest impression: Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, striding through in a neat cameo as Jeremy's ex.
The movie's been cut down by 20 or so minutes since its premiere at last year's Cannes, and whether that's Wong or Harvey Weinstein getting itchy with the scissors, I'm not sure it's for the worse. "Nights" is a thing of intoxicating surfaces, and a little of it goes a long way. Not since Josef von Sternberg directed Marlene Dietrich has a director thrown this much stuff between the camera and his cast, and Wong leans on his soundtrack a little too hard as well. I could have heard "The Greatest" one fewer time and Cassandra Wilson's spooky version of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" one more.
Music and nostalgia are what fuel all this filmmaker's movies, though, even a half-baked translation like this one. Wong loves searching the human face for the pain underneath, and he fetishizes the rituals of thwarted desire. He's not above giving "My Blueberry Nights" a Hollywood ending (and a disarmingly tender one at that), but in all other respects these characters are locked in their creator's long-established private dance. As the diner owner tells the lady wanderer, "Don't blame the pie."