When great international directors come to America—think Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms, or Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas—the results tend to be awkward, yet beautiful: awkward because the filmmakers find the language and culture dauntingly unfamiliar, and beautiful because they have fresh, unvarnished impressions of America. Those qualities are in full effect in Wong Kar-Wai's wounded road odyssey My Blueberry Nights, which opened to shrugs at Cannes last year and now arrives in theaters 20 minutes leaner, and no doubt a little worse for wear. Informed by iconic pieces of Americana like Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," plus a soundtrack that pairs Otis Redding and Mavis Staples alongside soulful contemporaries like Cat Power and Cassandra Wilson, the film views the nation's cities as all-night hideaways where doomed romantics can suck gin, fork a pie, and quietly lament loves lost or never found. In other words, Wong has succeeded in turning America into a Wong Kar-Wai movie.
Making her acting debut, singer Norah Jones doesn't leave much of an impression, though part of the point is that she's a passive participant in her own life. Still reeling from an ex-boyfriend who left her for another woman, Jones starts hanging out at a moody New York City café run by Jude Law, a fast-talker who immediately takes to her. The two become friends, but the restless Jones, anxious to leave the city (and memories of her ex-boyfriend) behind, travels to Memphis and takes two waitressing jobs in the hope that she'll raise enough money to buy a car. She winds up entangled in a messy separation involving an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) and his cheating wife (Rachel Weisz), so she flees again, this time to Las Vegas, where she befriends a poker shark played by Natalie Portman.
In spite of the location change, My Blueberry Nights takes place in Wong's unmistakable cinematic universe, where the lives of lovelorn singles are ruled by repetition and obsession, and their loneliness isn't so much piercing as luxuriant. Wong knows this territory well, and films like Days Of Being Wild, Chungking Express, and Fallen Angels have explored it without some of the shaky dialogue and performances that dog My Blueberry Nights. (Though it should be said that Portman and Strathairn do excellent work.) And yet Wong's visions of a New York café, a Memphis bar, and a Vegas casino—not to mention the swaths of beautiful country in the Southwest—have that enveloping quality that make his films so persistently seductive. The natives should feel flattered.