23 February 2008

I'll Be Back Before You Can Say Blueberry Pie

I've never been a fan of the music of Norah Jones (Noh RAjones, en prononciation Monsieur E). It's all a bit too jazz-lite for me; not that I am some big jazz snob - far from it, in fact - but I always found her songs just rather boring and samey. For some reason Monsieur E did like her, although I think he has since denied all knowledge of this - I'm sure it had something to do with her exotic heritage being just exquisite enough for his tastes.

Anyway, Ms Jones didn't particularly knock my socks in her film début, My Blueberry Nights, either. There wasn't anything wrong with her performance - perhaps her character provided limited scope with which to demonstrate her full potential as an actress or perhaps the presence of three of my favourite actors - Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman - distracted me from Jones's attempts to OMG-so-alone her way around the States.

Jones plays Elizabeth, a New Yorker who bursts into the life of Law's New York café owner, Jeremy, after she finds out that her boyfriend has been seeing another bird. Jeremy is - I think - supposed to be a Mancunian and while there were occasional moments when I could have been convinced that Ian Brown or Liam Gallagher was there in the café, for the most part, Jeremy's accent is more Harrogate via Jude Law's regular accent. Elizabeth and Jeremy bond over keys and blueberry pie before she skips the tristate area on a Greyhound and waitresses and mopes her way around America meeting a variety of quirky characters along the way, including cop/alcoholic Arnie and his estranged wife Sue Lynne (Weisz) in Memphis and gambler-with-a-heart Leslie (Portman).

Law, Weisz and Portman all seem to be acting against type here. The characters they all play are usually sleekly groomed and dressed, whereas Jeremy is low key in his jeans and t-shirts and with his mop of curls (that actually suits him very well) and Sue Lynne, by night, is wild, angry and uncontrollable - the ultimate girl with a curl right in the middle of her forehead, the rest of her mane wild and untamed as she slinks and snarls her way around the Memphis bar - and by day, she is more put-together and composed. Natalie Portman, of course, makes even a tight perm and bad bleach job look good, although her trashy character couldn't be any more different from the role of Anne Boleyn, which she will be reprising in a couple of weeks.

Although it is the nights of Elizabeth's journey that are mentioned in the title, the film focuses a lot on the contrasts between day and night. In Memphis, by day, Elizabeth works in a diner as "Betty" where she serves steak to a local cop; my night, she is "Lizzie" and she is serving that same cop his eighth whiskey in the dive bar that is her second place of work. In Nevada, where she meets Leslie, Elizabeth voice-overs that she liked the casino because she didn't feel like such an insomniac when she had no idea what time of day it was. The noise, lights, cards and people in the casino starkly contrast with the sleepy vibe of the Memphis bar.

Along the way of this bizarre, extended road trip, Elizabeth has been sending postcards back to Jeremy, who, in turn, tries desperately to track her down by calling every Memphis bar he can find in the phone book before giving up. Inevitably, she finds her way back to NYC, as many people do, even though it took almost a year - a year in which almost nothing happens.

I guess that was my biggest problem with the film - nothing really happens. Well, there is action and even death but it doesn't quite feel relevant enough. Arnie, Sue Lynne and Leslie are all interesting enough characters but our Goodbye Girl never seems to stick around long enough (at least in terms of minutes in the film) for us to feel too involved with them. I still quite liked the film and it was beautifully shot, with some great Manhattan scenes and then the flashing, glaring brilliance of Vegas, although it was perhaps too consciously arty for my taste with its almost constant use of slow-mo and some clever focusing technique for which I don't know the name but involves shifting the focus slightly away from the character so we feel slightly distanced from her as we try to empathise with her.

As a bonus, there was only one Noh RAjones song on the soundtrack - The Story, which didn't annoy me any more than any of her other songs - which opened the film and so as soon as you hear it again, you know the film is about to end. A couple of good Cat Power songs and Try a Little Tenderness by Otis Redding are my other picks from the soundtrack.

I'm glad that I only quite liked this film and I suspect that when The Other Boleyn Girl comes out in a couple of weeks I am going to hate it, even though I love Tudor history, I think Natalie Portman is a good actress and I quite enjoyed the Philippa Gregory book on which it is based, pulp historical(-ish) fiction though it is. Finally, perhaps, a chance to rant not gush!

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