If Wong Kar Wai had a Travel Channel show, it would be called Diners, Dives & Desert Drives. That's the Hong Kong filmmaker's vision of America in My Blueberry Nights, his rhapsodic road trip romance. Wong (In the Mood for Love) finds beauty in transience; his characters converge in cafés, bars, casinos and motels, searching for revelation in places that offer only fleeting shelter.Blueberry centers on the malleable Elizabeth, who reflects different facets of her personality in diverse locales. (She's alternately Lizzie, Betty and Beth.) Elizabeth would have made an excellent femme fatale, with an innate ability to draw strangers into her sphere, but Wong and his co-screenwriter, crime novelist Lawrence Block, have chosen another archetype: the innocent. Whether she's in New York City, Memphis, Las Vegas, or on a scorched highway out West, Elizabeth exudes a primal goodness. As Elizabeth, musician Norah Jones displays an oddly engaging anti-charisma. She has a heart-on-her-sleeve eagerness, but the acting novice is mostly reacting to Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman. Their emotional intensity sometimes borders the hammy, yet all give achingly real performances. Dusting off her Where the Heart Is twang, Portman is magnetic as a duplicitous gambler. As in Closer (2004), she excels at portraying a winning woman whose straight-talking brashness masks a manipulative nature.
Weisz (The Constant Gardner) also thrives when portraying duality and her desperate floozy is a lost Tennessee Williams character, married to an alcoholic state trooper (Strathairn) who clings to this tarnished belle as his salvation. These damaged folks make the honest, unvarnished Elizabeth their confidante, just as she relies on greasy-spoon proprietor Law (who regains his charm by forgetting that he's a movie star) to provide comfort food and unwavering compassion.
With its saturated colors and restless forward motion, My Blueberry Nights recalls Wong's giddy Chungking Express (1994). The films also share an underlying optimism and the looseness of a story being caught on the fly. Wong and cinematographer Darius Khondji (Delicatessen, Se7en) create a visual palette that transforms the most routine scenes into an impressionist swirl. They often adopt a voyeur's perspective, viewing interactions through barriers like plate-glass windows and beaded screens.
Wong's American dream is soaked in romanticism as gooey and sweet as pie a la mode. His effulgent Elizabeth may travel far and wide, but ends up right where she belongs.
Playing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.