-By Rex Roberts

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It’s a curious achievement, but Wong Kar Wai manages to make the wide screen feel claustrophobic with My Blueberry Nights, his ninth feature and first English-language film. Renowned for his visual ingenuity and stylized direction, the Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-based filmmaker pulls out the usual tricks and gimmicks from his cinematic satchel: oversaturated colors, unexpected points of view and, of course, moody, urban mise-en-scène punctuated by roaring metros, summer storms and way-cool tunes. Here, however, his found-art sets appear cluttered, his still-life tableaus clichéd and his beauty-shot close-ups unglamorous.

Wong always works with gorgeous actors, in his high-end commercials (Clive Owen for Lancôme, Eva Green for Dior) as well as his auteur films, but he seems disconnected from the improbable cast he assembled for his American debut. Brits Jude Law (wisely sticking with his native accent), Rachel Weisz (affecting a Deep South drawl) and Natalie Portman (Southwestern twang) pop up in New York, Memphis and Las Vegas, respectively, while Chan Marshall, born and raised in the American South, cameos as a Russian immigrant. None of them, whatever their linguistic challenge, appear comfortable in this ersatz road movie that takes us, by leaps and bounds, across the United States. David Strathairn manages an affecting portrayal of a doomed alcoholic, but his performance is lost, like the script, in translation.

My Blueberry Nights is short on story, at any rate. Elizabeth (Norah Jones), jilted by her boyfriend, takes masochistic pleasure hanging out at a lunch counter where she caught the cad-in-question cheating with the other woman. Jeremy (Law), owner of the diner, does his best to comfort his heartbroken customer, serving her blueberry pie. (There’s always a fresh one in the pantry because no one else eats it.) They make an attractive pair, but Elizabeth needs to heal. She takes off for Memphis (America’s soul city, birthplace of the blues, grace land…choose your metaphor), where she waitresses in a dive bar frequented by the likes of Arnie (Strathairn), a crapulent cop wallowing in self-pity because his trashy wife, Sue Lynne (Weisz), is hot for guys in tight jeans.

Elizabeth learns what she can while grooving to Otis Redding on the neon-bright jukebox (caressingly lensed by Darius Khondji, who’s also shooting Wong’s work-in-progress, The Lady from Shanghai). Then she lights out for Las Vegas (America’s wheel of fortune), where she studies up on poker and flashy cars with a bottled blonde named Leslie (Portman). Eventually, Elizabeth figures out that Jeremy, who’s been telephoning every bar and grill west of the Hudson, is the real deal. She goes back to New York and they kiss, or we watch them kiss…that is, we watch a videotape (from the diner security camera) of Jeremy stealing a kiss from a sleepy Elizabeth full of pie (and beer), the happy couple complacently self-reflexive.

Nora Jones, born in Brooklyn, raised in Dallas, with an international pedigree and a bunch of Grammys, was an inspired choice for this transcendental meditation from the heartland. Wong doesn’t give her much chance to act, but she and Marshall (the rehabbed singer-songwriter also known as Cat Power) supply songs to the hipster soundtrack. Lawrence Block, the best-selling mystery writer, helped with the script, although the dialogue never gets in tune. The whole project is half-baked, as if Wong, closing in on his 50th birthday, still wants his MTV: My Blueberry Nights owes much more to his youthful Fallen Angels than his mature In the Mood for Love.

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