Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Meet Ms. Jones Friday

Singers are stage performers, so one might expect them to be natural dramatic actors. Some, like Sinatra, certainly were. Others like Madonna, not so much. The jury is still out on Norah Jones, but she definitely surpasses expectations in Wong Kar Wai’s beautifully filmed My Blueberry Nights.

Wong seems to have set out to film a hipster vision of an Edward Hopper picture, with most of the action taking place in nocturnal haunts, like diners and bars. It starts with Jones’s heartsick Elizabeth looking for her soon to be ex-lover in his favorite diner, run by Jeremy, a British expat played by Jude Law. Much of their dialogue together sounds overly written, like a long exchange about the keys Jeremy holds on behalf of rejected lovers. However, Jones and Law do have on-screen chemistry. Their seemingly casual late nights spent over Jeremy’s underappreciated blueberry pies (hello title) prompt thoughts on the nature of time and attraction. How long does it take to really get to know someone and then to fall for them?

To work her ex out of her head, Elizabeth leaves New York and Jeremy’s diner, going on the road, where she works a series of waitressing jobs, meeting some very dysfunctional people. Particularly damaged is Arnie, a Memphis cop who doubles as the town drunk after his wife leaves him. In probably the film strongest performance, David Strathairn’s Arnie is both pathetic and unsettling in equal measure.

Eventually, Elizabeth’s wanderlust takes her to Nevada and another waitressing gig before joining forces with Leslie, a manipulative poker player. As Leslie, we see Natalie Portman acting all over the screen with little subtlety involved, but to be fair, her accent and flamboyance have an odd charm (not cloying like a Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain).

The early festival reviews were not kind to Jones, but in truth she is pretty good in a challenging debut film. Wong’s style can be unforgiving for actors, shooting them in extended close-ups without dialogue and requiring them to emote as appropriate. Law and Strathairn easily turn in the film’s best work, while Jones keeps up reasonably well. Although not a perfect film debut, she shows real screen charm, if not exactly powerhouse chops. (She has certainly already surpassed Madonna’s acting talents, at least.) Evidently the film has been re-cut since Cannes and that might have helped.

Although never performing on screen, Jones’s music also plays a supportive role. “The Story” is a strong song and a perfectly fitting musical touchstone for the film. Ry Cooder’s themes and a licensed Cassandra Wilson recording also nicely contribute to the overall mood, and atmosphere is indeed where Blueberry is strongest. The real stars of the film might be the arresting colors and visuals of Wong and cinematographer Darrius Khondji. By it’s own admission (in a Jones voiceover), Blueberry takes a long, circuitous route to eventually get where it is going. Though flawed (particularly in a clunky script surprisingly co-written by mystery novelist Lawrence Block), Blueberry looks and sounds great. Ultimately, it has a certain romanticism that is compelling. It opens in New York at the Angelika this Friday.