Heartbreak Wong-Style, Heartbreak Apatow-Style
By Fernando F. Croce

My Blueberry Nights is here, and I see a lot of Wong Kar-Wai fans with disappointed looks on their faces. It's a "trifle," it's "recycled," it's "vacation time" after the symphonic summarization of 2046. Wong is just doffing off, a friend said. Well, what's more magical than your beloved's sleeping face? A closeup of Norah Jones napping, her lips lightly smudged with pastry glaze and curling into a smile, is chief among the film's many, many privileged moments. It's an instance of momentary repose for a character (and a director) primarily associated with restlessness, with impermanence that cuts through languor. Wong's unique world has always been one of enchanted dislocation, of smudged neon and subways zipping overhead, and here, to add to the discombobulated effect, he shoots on American soil: The axis is the countertop at a New York City café or a Memphis pub, a site of transactions and transitions where the characters grope for anchors in objects (keys, chips, postcards, a slice of pie). How to cope with such loneliness? Advice radiates out of the jukebox: "Try a Little Tenderness." Jones as the heroine is placid earthiness surrounded by evanescence, a young waitress hitting the well-traveled road to self-discovery, killing time until the inevitable reunion with a winsome coffee shop owner (Jude Law). Stops along the way include meetings with a fragrantly unhappy couple (David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz) and a flashy gambler (Natalie Portman) out of Jacques Demy.

"I wonder how you will remember me. As the girl who likes blueberry pies... Or as the girl with the broken heart?" Would subtitles have improved this line? My Blueberry Nights is an invitation, if not a challenge, to forget the lyrics and listen to the music -- after all, doesn't "Yumeji's Theme" move us as much played on a cello in In the Mood for Love as it does here, filtered through Ry Cooder's harmonica? The too-neat, three-paneled screenplay (co-written with novelist Lawrence Block) doesn't allow for nearly as much improvisation as Wong's earlier Hong Kong reveries, but this impressionistic canvas is still profoundly sensuous and floridly vulnerable: The camera gazes through scribbled windowpanes and beaded curtains, yet the characters feel so close you could reach into the screen and touch them. The actors aren't so much directed as they are molded into icons of lush romanticism. Norah Jones isn't an actress, but Wong doesn't need her to act, just her face and her lostness are enough; both Strathairn and Weisz show hitherto unexplored, wounded dimensions, and Portman is at her most affecting. Roadside America is viewed anew through outsider-eyes (Darius Khondji's cinematography is a few notches more saturated than that of Wong's usual wizard Christopher Doyle, but just as liquid and emotive), the editing is both fragmented and caressing. Wong offers a soulful banquet, and reviewers complain that it is much too rich. Let them stick to their diet, then, all I can say is I savored this to the last crumb and coffee drop.

*

If American heartbreak contemplated through Wong's viewfinder is not your bag, there's always the indigenous view: In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the schlub-protagonist (Jason Segel) gives his longtime girlfriend (Kristin Bell) a cock-flapping greeting before muddling through a protracted, lachrymose breakup scene with the aforementioned penis prominently featured. The link between a guy's nuts and his vulnerability is what Judd Apatow's brand of comedy is all about, I keep hearing, but I'm still not buying: The story (dumped guy flies to Hawaii, where Mila Kunis offers herself on a platter even though he's too busy crawling into a fetal position over his ex) is supposedly sweet-raunchy, but it is foremost a revenge plot, with Segel's reportedly autobiographical screenplay building to the scene where the phallus that was humiliated in the opening vengefully rejects the perfidious bitch even after she's pleaded with, fondled, and sucked off the protagonist. (Hey, it's good to be the writer.) Leading up to it is one of the year's dingiest comedies, as director Nicholas Stoller sticks to producer Apatow's recipe book and adds no new flavors. The overall feeling is that of a movie entirely overrun by third- and fourth-billed sidekicks (Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd are the special guest-stars, for crying out loud), where even Hawaii looks drab and the premise is stolen from Steve Martin in The Lonely Guy only to be buried under a wave of botched improv bits. (To see Segel do a Lord of the Rings impression is to feel the full weight of your eyelids suddenly bearing down.) Forgetting Sarah Marshall? Done!

*

It seems every comic's dream is to become some kind of humanitarian. Instead of making a movie about clowns and concentration-camp kids, however, Morgan Spurlock went looking for comedy in the Muslim world in Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Expecting his first baby, the Super Size Me stunt-auteur decides to fret about mankind's global quagmire and heads out to the Middle East on an earnest-facetious mission -- to find the world's most wanted man, who here becomes a cartoon grooving to "U Can't Touch This" and a videogame boss strangled by Spurlock's fierce mustache. Just as he boldly discovered the fact that a steady diet of McDonald's junk fucks up your body, the filmmaker is shocked, shocked here to realize that the planet is littered with American-supported evil dictators, that Palestinians are walled off as lower-level citizens, that students in Saudi Arabia are a bit uneasy answering questions about Israel within their teacher's earshot. Spurlock ponders the Gaza Strip ("It's, uh... It's pretty scary"), and then makes Michael Moore look like Marcel Ophüls by donning Muslin garb to ask supermarket customers about Bin Laden's hideout. ("Fuck him and fuck America," is the sanest thing said.) Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? shows that using the terrorist for an idiot-comic's self-satisfied routine can be almost as deplorable as using him for a pinheaded president's manipulation of panic.


Reviewed April 27, 2008.

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