Wong Kar Wai's newest (and first English-language) film, My Blueberry Nights, about a woman in search for herself and love after a bad breakup, stars a cast of beautiful people: Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Jude Law and easy-listening chanteuse Norah Jones — in her first acting performance. But does Norah — who smartly makes her movie debut via the director of such critically-acclaimed films as In The Mood For Love and Happy Together — deliver a sweet performance in Blueberry? The critics weigh in, after the jump.
My father likes to contend that movie acting is the easiest art; Norah Jones' performance here is a compelling refutation of that claim. There's nothing overtly wrong with her line readings or facial expressions, and she's as lovely as the day is long. As a singer, Jones is a gifted explorer of this same emotional terrain: wistfulness, longing, heartbreak. But as an actor, she fails to make Elizabeth someone we want to know better. Meanwhile, another singer, Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power), packs a whole nightclub's worth of smoky mystery into her one scene as Jude Law's returning ex-girlfriend.
Without a plot or any kind of connective tissue to hold the vignettes together, nothing about My Blueberry Nights makes any kind of coherent sense as it follows Norah Jones, the recording artist, around in her acting debut. She can't act, and I've got news—she's no jazz singer, either, even though she's managed to forge a bogus reputation as one. Still, here she is, in practically every scene, lovely to look at but so insecure and uncertain about how to speak a simple declarative sentence that she seems to be hiding in the corner of each frame.
Norah Jones, in her bland screen debut, plays a brokenhearted New Yorker named Elizabeth who sets out on a road trip across America after a bad breakup, presumably in search of oblivion or at the very least a change of scenery. But first, she wallows, spending a series of long, woozy nights in an otherwise ever-deserted diner basking in the melancholy sympathy of diner owner and fellow lonely-heart, Jeremy, improbably played by Jude Law. If this is the guy she goes to for a shoulder, you have to wonder who she's pining for.
For all its insubstantiality, My Blueberry Nights does provide some catnip allure that will be to some tastes. Best served will be those willing and able to embrace the general void of Elizabeth's character and place themselves within it. Jones proves agreeable but bland company in the role; she's attractive, but lacks mystery, emotional vitality and that something special behind the eyes. As if to make up for this in their scenes together, Law starts off in overdrive and only rarely downshifts; he's more effective when he does so.
All that stuff bothered me at first, along with the fact that Jones can't really act. When she's required to display emotion about the former boyfriend, it's more like watching somebody miss the bus or lose her cellphone than undergo a very early midlife crisis. Still, the camera loves her, as they say. (If there's one thing Wong Kar-wai knows how to do better than any other filmmaker, it's shoot beautiful women so they look their best.) She has a little of the young Julia Roberts, or a less extreme Angelina Jolie, about her.
Ms. Jones, whose diffidence lends her musical performances an air of intrigue and seduction, does not so much fail to act as refuse to try. Her face registers degrees of strickenness and bewilderment, but she is most persuasive when she falls asleep at the counter of Jeremy's establishment after gorging on pie.
Jones, a very appealing performer in concerts and interviews, is herself half-Asian (her father is the celebrated Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar), and thus fits snugly into the Wong Kar Wai iconography [...] Jones also has a similar background to many performers from Wong's Hong Kong films: Leung, Leslie Cheung, Faye Wong, Andy Lau, Leon Lai and dozens of others were Canto-pop stars before they were accomplished actors. But there's a big difference between movie acting, which is what the Hong Kong stars quickly learned to do, and posing for pictures, which is what Jones does. She has all the right moves, but something is missing inside. (Her unfortunate speaking voice doesn't help.) She's the hole at the center of the movie. Indeed, Blueberry Nights can be seen as a series of acting lessons, by the other members of the cast, which Jones can apply the next time she's in a movie. Their work usually looks natural; hers seems forced and false. They shine, next to her limited screen luster.
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 a remarkably assured work; one hopes she will further explore acting in other movies.
My Blueberry Nights is playing in limited release.