There’s nothing wrong with the blueberry pie, just people make other choices.
— Jeremy (Jude Law)
“I don’t know how to begin,” murmurs Elizabeth (Norah Jones) at the start of My Blueberry Nights, “because this story has been told before.” As she speaks, the camera lingers on luscious close-ups of blueberry pie in the making: sensuous and slow, ice cream seeping. Her story concerns love lost, a series of moments full of desperation and desire. It spills into other stories, as she meets other yearning souls and, as she journeys, observes the ways that people seek and run away from on another.
Elizabeth’s story begins with loss. And because her movie is so upfront about its repetitions, you’ll recall its earlier iteration, also directed by Wong Kar-wai. Set in Hong Kong, Chungking Express also features a lovely pop star (Faye Wong) entranced with longing and imagining across time and space. While Faye swoons to “California Dreaming” and scrubs floors and refrigerators, Elizabeth, while equally passionate and pained, is more restrained. She’s not even sure she’s on her way somewhere until she walks into a New York café owned by Jeremy (Jude Law), a former long distance runner who stopped, he tells Elizabeth, when he thought he might settle down with a “Russian girl who loved collecting keys and watching sunsets” (played here as a kind of pulsing afterthought by Shawn Marshall, better known as Cat Power). “A few years ago, I had a dream” Jeremy postures, “and then one night, a door slammed and the dream was over.” Elizabeth listens and absorbs, her own heart aching over a boyfriend’s careless dumping.
When Elizabeth learns that Jeremy’s security video camera may have caught her ex and his new girl, she’s moved to watch them together, eating pork chops, to see what her replacement looks like. She leaves the café and returns, repeatedly, riding the train, standing outside the ex’s apartment window, watching his shadowy figure with another woman’s. Like Wong’s other films, this one is layered with smudgy memories, gestures slowed and kisses exquisitely anticipated.
Elizabeth’s story is at once too literal and too fragile, her search not as interesting as its shape and colors. Her attraction to Jeremy is premised on their separate losses, their cultivations of similar heartaches, their delights in desserts (she’s fond of the far too symbolic blueberry pie, always sweet and drippy, always available; “You can’t blame the blueberry pie,” he sighs, “it’s just, no one wants it”). When a bizarre coincidence of confrontations leaves both Jeremy and Elizabeth with bloody noses (his fight involves customers he has to break up and eject, an awkward, briefly brutal swing-away caught by the surveillance camera, hers takes place off-screen). They mirror one another, red drips marking their not-quite alike melancholies. And after that night, Elizabeth moves on.
The rest of My Blueberry Nights follows her road trip, as she renames herself in different places, Lizzie in Memphis, where she works two jobs, a diner by day and a bar by night, because, she writes Jeremy, she can’t sleep. Here she meets Arnie (David Strathairn), drunk and miserable, a cop despairing over the loss of his estranged wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz), who sashays into the bar as her new cowboy leans against his car outside. Voluptuous and tight-skirted, Sue Lynne can’t seem to help herself, though the locals — especially the bar owner Travis (Frankie Faison), who shakes his head and offers just enough background detail so Lizzie thinks she understands the tragedy unfolding before her.
Watching with a mix of detachment and identification, approximating the film viewer, Lizzie is inspired to move on when Arnie’s story comes to a brutal end, including a brief, bloody bar fight glimpsed from across the room and recalling the grainy surveillance footage of Jeremy’s scrap, yet another repetition that pushes Lizzie on to her next destination, a poker joint in Nevada, where she meets the vivacious Leslie (Natalie Portman). She’s a gambler — a vocation that literalizes the film’s thematic interest in taking chances on love — hung up on a bad dad story and anxious to prove herself in a man’s world.
Leslie’s quickly developed friendship with Beth begins when she convinces the waitress — eating her sandwich during her 10-minute dinner break — to stake her game. The money occasions their drive to Vegas in Leslie’s Jaguar, which turns out to be her father’s car, a weighty emblem of the daughter’s rebellions and regrets. Leslie wonders at Beth’s apparent lack of guile, then offers her father’s best advice by way of hope: “Trust everyone,” he told her, “But always cut the cards.” Of all the film’s metaphors, overt and subtle, this one resonates most effectively. Less sensuous than the pie à la mode, more nuanced than the doors opening and closing, less straight-ahead than the road trip or the elevated trains that crisscross Elizabeth’s blurry flashbacks, cutting the cards might not change any odds, but it does offer an illusion of choice.