LITTLE ROCK For most of us, there is a qualitative difference involved in watching a foreign-language movie. Subtitles convey what they can, but there's much they can't.
This isn't always a bad thing; sometimes we overrate the foreign film simply because it's from another land. What might be banal dialogue in the original French or Cantonese can acquire a tinge of mystery when the syllables are divorced from any sense. Subtitles have their own romance, reminding us of how sophisticated and cosmopolitan we are to be watching a film in an art house rather than some awshucks superhero show at a suburban multiplex.
Those who love foreign films love them at least partly because they are exotic - because of the vicarious travel experiences they allow. And so it is often problematic when a foreign filmmaker takes the United States for his canvas, hires faces more or less familiar to us as actors and proceeds to work in English.
Wong Kar Wai's first English language movie, My Blueberry Nights, is in many ways a typical Wong Kar Wai movie. It's dreamy, woozy, elliptical and gorgeously infused with orange-red light and smeary Matisse blues. It's visually beautiful and its open-ended narrative is loose and suggestive, a lyric ballad that focuses on the foreground details while leaving larger questions of motivation and character history vague.
All we really know about Elizabeth (Norah Jones) is that she's fed up with her relationship. Kindly Manhattan diner operator Jeremy (Jude Law) lets her know her unnamed man has been having pork chops with another, and she tosses her keys to the lover's apartment in the diner's lost and found bowl. The two lonely hearts - Jude Law can't get a date either - commiserate for a while, and Elizabeth gets introduced to the diner's least favored dessert. ("There's nothing wrong with the blueberry pie, just people make other choices," Jeremy tells her. "You can't blame the blueberry pie, it's just ... no onewants it.") Then one night she lights out for the territory, into the Kerouacian crazy American night.
Elizabeth surfaces in Memphis, working days as a waitress and nights as a bartender, where she witnesses a tragedy involving an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) and his cruel ex-wife (Rachel Weisz). Then Elizabeth is on to Reno, where she eventually teams up with a gambler (Natalie Portman) with daddy issues.
What happens really isn't important. What matters to Wong is the way his characters exist in the moment, the way the light molds their faces as the fates buffet them about. It's quite lovely and the soundtrack is lush and tender with tracks from Jones, Otis Redding, Ry Cooder and especially Cat Power (who, under her real name Chan Marshall, makes a brief appearance as Jeremy's long-lost love).
So what's wrong with My Blueberry Nights?
It's tempting to reflect back to Jeremy's discourse on dessert options, but the truth is that Norah Jones simply isn't a strong enough actor to carry the movie. She's not bad, just bland in an amiable way that doesn't quite register as mousy.
The casting feels like a stunt. Unlike, for example, the Icelandic singer Bjork, who was incredibly effective as the pathetic lead in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark (1999), Jones' screen persona is almost entirely devoid of edginess. She just seems like a nice girl who feels sorry for herself.
It's no more her fault than it is the blueberry pie's. Wong chose her, built his movie around her. Whatever he thought he saw in her doesn't translate.
MovieStyle, Pages 39 on 05/16/2008