Diner owner Jeremy (Jude Law) cuts into his untouched blueberry pie and serves the heartbroken Elizabeth (Norah Jones) a slice, noting that it’s not the pie’s fault that nobody wanted it. This scene stands out in “My Blueberry Nights” not only because it explains the film’s title, but also because every great chef occasionally delivers a bum pie. And that’s exactly what’s happened to Wong Kar-Wai this time around.
The director of such contemporary masterworks of longing and lost love as “2046,” “In the Mood for Love,” “Chungking Express,” “Happy Together” and “Days of Being Wild,” Wong makes movies where heartache and obsession are communicated through silent stares, pop songs, mood lighting, colorful art direction and even the great hairstyles of the 1960s.
And thus it gives me no pleasure to point out that his English-language debut is something of a disaster. But it’s not the English that seems to trip up the writer-director; it’s the language. Wong’s script, co-written with Lawrence Block, tosses out the filmmaker’s genius for non-verbal characterization and replaces it with talk, talk, talk. And none of it is particularly interesting.
Elizabeth catches her man cheating. She makes a series of visits to Jeremy’s diner, where they eat pie and commiserate over lost loves. She hits the road to get away from herself and takes a series of waitressing jobs, first in Memphis — where she crosses paths with a sad-sack, hard-drinking policeman (David Strathairn) and the floozy (Rachel Weisz) who done him wrong — and then to Nevada, meeting a down-on-her-luck gambler (Natalie Portman).
Just about everything that could go wrong with “My Blueberry Nights” does. For one thing, Jones is adequate in her first time as an actress, but while she avoids embarrassing herself, she doesn’t have the heft to hold together a movie this nebulous. The more established names, for the most part, turn in some of the worst work of their careers to date: Weisz is singularly unconvincing as a native Tennessean, and Portman goes too big or too small with her performance. And not that Jude Law has conditioned us to expect much from him, but he’s quite the dullard himself here. (Strathairn and Frankie Faison come off just fine, but they can’t stop this ship from sinking.)
The look of the film is also all over the place. Since a rather public split with his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong is working for the first time with Darius Khondji (“Se7en,” the U.S. “Funny Games”). Khondji’s work in the New York segment stands beside Doyle’s, with its compelling interplay between shadow and bright colors, but he fails to make Memphis or Vegas look any different than they have in a hundred other movies.
Wong and Khondji’s attempt at a signature image for the film — a close-up of vanilla ice cream melting into hot blueberry pie — must have sounded good on paper, but on the screen it’s kind of revolting. Which perhaps makes it a perfect metaphor for “My Blueberry Nights” itself.