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Jones tops "Pie" with strong acting debut

Updated: 2007-05-18 09:18

Jones tops

Cast members Jude Law and Norah Jones arrive for an evening gala screening of Chinese director Wong Kar Wai's in-competition film 'My Blueberry Nights' at the 60th Cannes Film Festival May 16, 2007.[Reuters]

"My Blueberry Nights" is a melancholy torch song in three-part harmony. In Wong Kar Wai's English-language debut, the acclaimed Hong Kong-based filmmaker brings before his always-prowling camera three stories about addiction -- addiction to alcohol, addiction to gambling and, most of all, addiction to love.

Nothing truly profound gets discovered, nor does this film mark a career breakthrough for Wong despite the shift in language and locale. The director is chasing a mood here, a mood, an atmosphere and feelings, much as he did in "In the Mood for Love," which premiered at Cannes seven years ago.

His camera notices how people smoke cigarettes and eat food and how windows, door frames and space itself can confine people. In cramped Hong Kong, this impressionistic technique served as metaphor for a way of life.

But in Manhattan and Memphis and in Nevada casinos, the confinement is more emotional than physical. People shortchange their lives in obsessions over people and behaviors that ill suit them.

This cool and cerebral film could be a hot art house item. But despite a cast headed by songstress Norah Jones -- in an auspicious acting debut -- Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman, the film is unlikely to move beyond the art house in North America. It may achieve greater box-office success in Europe and certain Asian markets.

Jones plays Elizabeth, the main actor in the first segment and then a participant/observer in the next two sections with a coda back in New York that brings her character's emotional odyssey full circle to a fitting though predictable conclusion.

Virtually the whole first third of the film takes place in a Manhattan greasy spoon run by English ex-patriot Jeremy (Law). An occasional diner customer, Elizabeth is in the throes of a really bad breakup with her lover. Sensing a sensitive, caring soul in the guy behind the counter, she begins to frequent the joint.

Jeremy feeds her blueberry pie, a dessert left over at closing because "nobody wants it." You sense Jeremy is falling in love with Elizabeth, but she is too enthralled with her grief to notice.

Elizabeth decamps for the open road and finds herself in Memphis. Two waitressing jobs, at a diner and a bar, allow her to witness the irreparably broken marriage of an older cop (Strathairn) and his younger wife (Weisz). An imbalance in the loving has estranged them: He is mad for her, but she is too young and confused. They tried to drink their way back into love, but mornings always brought hangovers and remorse. Lizzy -- she changes her name with each locale -- then sees the final, desperate and very sad actions of people who can find no way out.

Another waitress job in a Nevada casino brings her into contact with Leslie (Portman), an inveterate gambler on a losing streak. Beth (as she now calls herself) winds up with Leslie's Jag when the gambler hocks it to her for betting money. The two then roar into the desert, riding around and talking until Leslie's problem emerges -- a father who taught her everything about cards and little about life other than to trust no one, a father who may or may not now be dying.

The curtain falls with Elizabeth back at Jeremy's diner, a changed woman who perhaps now can experience the love that awaits her.

Working from a script he wrote with Lawrence Block, Wong and his crew maintain a dreamlike atmosphere throughout the woman's journey. Much of this film was made in the editing room and lab as Wong manipulates time, space and colors to render these melancholy tales into fleeting memories culled from a vague past. Did this really happen or was it a dream? A character wonders.

It doesn't seem to matter much to Wong. Even the way ice cream melts into blueberry pie in extreme close-up captures, he seems to feel, an emotion felt, forgotten, then re-remembered.

The glue here is Jones, who holds a wispy, wistful film together with a deeply felt, unself-conscious performance that strikes the right notes without ever falling into repetition or banality. She brings her singer's talent of knowing when to go for emotions and when to hold back to her acting. It's remarkably assured work; one hopes she will further explore acting in other movies.


Elizabeth: Norah Jones

Jeremy: Jude Law

Arnie: David Strathairn

Sue Lynne: Rachel Weisz

Leslie: Natalie Portman

Katya: Chan Marshall

Director: Wong Kar Wai; Screenwriters: Wong Kar Wai, Lawrence Block; Story by: Wong Kar Wai; Producers: Jack Pang Yee Wah, Wong Kar Wai; Director of photography: Darius Khondji; Production designer/editor: William Chang; Music: Ry Cooder; Costume designer: Sharon Globerson.