You know what I miss? Pretentious art house cinema. Seriously. To a certain subset of the Middle-American species (the mindset, not the geographic location), I suppose there’s an awfully low threshold for “pretentious” when you consider that the average moviegoer would probably refer to any old dialogue-driven film with an ambiguous ending as pretentious (think American Beauty). After all, for those people, “pretentious” defies its definition; to the Great American Joes and Janes, pretentious usually just means that the movie is smarter than they are (think Paul Thomas Anderson), instead of what pretentious actually means: A dumb film pretending to be smart (think the Haggisian monstrosity that I’m no longer allowed to mention on the site, or Garden State, a mostly mainstream romantic comedy pretending to be indie). I don’t particularly understand the appeal of Terrence Malick, for instance, but that doesn’t make him pretentious — it just means his films sail over my tiny, populist brain. But to most cinematic schlubs and schlubees, pretentious just means slow-moving (There Will Be Blood), quirky (Juno), or awesome (Memento, Amelie).
(Those same people would also say that I’m being pretentious by trying to discuss the true meaning of “pretentious.” Not true: I’m being a pedantic asshole. Though, I do suppose I could rightfully be accused of being pretentious if you feel I’m only creating the appearance of pedantry, when in fact I’m just being an asshole. It’s a vicious circle, folks).
The point is, here lately — thanks to Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and their ilk — indie film is so preoccupied with quirk, whimsy and dysfunction, that no one bothers going for pretentious anymore. Whatever happened to bad art-school films trying to be smarter than they’re capable? Or wannabe Lynchian affairs that try to trick you into believing incoherent dialogue and badly edited scenes actually mean something profound?
Well, thank God for Wong Kar-wai and his first full English-language film, My Blueberry Nights. Now, here’s a film that aspires to be meaningful, rich, and entertaining but falls well short of the mark on all three counts, landing somewhere closer to pointless, banal, and plodding (oh, and don’t forget vapid!). But, it sure is pretty to look at — and the blueberry pie, to which the title refers, looks positively delicious. Shame you can’t eat the movie.
My Blueberry Nights is a road-trip film without any of those obnoxious roads to bog it down. It begins in a New York diner, where Jude Law’s Jeremy is presiding as café owner. In walks Elizabeth (Norah Jones), distraught and asking about her boyfriend. Jeremy — charming, easy-going, and completely fuckable (this is not one of Jude Law’s irksome cads) — only knows his customers by what they eat, and recognizes the description of Elizabeth’s boyfriend as a man who recently ordered two pork chops, one for himself and one for another woman. Elizabeth falls apart, and, in her despair, spends the next few late nights confiding in Jeremy over blueberry pie à la mode and hand-rolled cigarettes. They also reminisce about a bowl of lost keys in the café, each set with a story, each story with the disintegration of a relationship at its center.
Jeremy becomes smitten.
Elizabeth, however, is achy and conflicted and tortured and sleepless and so decides to leave the city and travel to Memphis, where she works two jobs as a waitress, at two different diners, which are both hangouts for Arnie (David Strathairn), an amiable cop at the daytime diner, and a sulking drunk obsessed with his soon-to-be ex-wife (Rachel Weisz) at the nighttime diner. Over the following few days, lots of hopelessly, unbelievably melodramatic events transpire involving guns, ultimatums, and terrible choices, and then Elizabeth is on her way to Las Vegas.
In Vegas, working as a cocktail waitress in a casino, Elizabeth meets Leslie (Natalie Portman), a firecracker Texan with one of those overbearing but endearing Anne Richards’ accents. Leslie, a problem gambler, teaches Elizabeth about trust and then rides her Jaguar off into the sunset, leaving Elizabeth a more mature, confident person, if you believe that nearly getting swindled out of your savings makes you a more mature, confident person.
The story, which is more like three vignettes with no common theme haphazardly strung together and tied with neon string, eventually leads its way back where you expect it to: the charming, easy-going and completely fuckable Jude Law, which is appropriate, since both his and Natalie Portman’s performances are the only reason to stick it out, unless beautiful but completely unrealistic cinematography is your thing. Wong Kar-wai is famous for his highly stylized films, but he goes overboard here with the unnecessary slow-motion close-ups and sets that look like Edward Hopper paintings rendered with a Lite-Brite. Wong clearly has a foreigner’s romantic conception of Americana, and the result is something akin to American folk art given the “Pimp My Ride” treatment. The colors — sultry and vibrant — are intoxicating, but they don’t blend well with the melancholic mood that Wong is going for — it’s a bit like setting a graveyard in a theme park and piping in Norah Jones and Cat Power music to offset the garishness.
The soundtrack, and Norah Jones’ single in particular, are phenomenal if you’re into smoky, soulful music, but again, Wong relies too much on the music to set the tone — the colors and the music blend well together, but they seem distinct from the script, like the lyrics and music don’t quite match up. He’s not helped out in the matter by Jones the actress, who looks the part (beautifully sad, enchantingly sleepy), but doesn’t talk it; it feels, at times, as if she was reading from cue cards, and she’s clearly not in the same league as the rest of the stellar cast (though Weisz oversells her Southern accent).
But maybe the film’s many contradictions — the dichotomy between mood and setting; colors and tone; bad acting and good; beautiful cinematography and lousy script — are intentional. Maybe there’s some underlying meaning to it all, something miraculously profound in Jones’ wooden performance, in the tortuous narrative, in the unyielding banality of My Blueberry Nights. Maybe it’s not pretentious at all; maybe I just don’t understand it.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
My Blueberry Nights / Dustin Rowles
Film | April 8, 2008 | Comments ()