It used to be that a John Sayles film was not a genre in itself. That is, you could expect certain things from Sayles—excellent scripts, character-driven stories, fine acting, a sensitivity to the mores, class issues, and hypocrisies of particular times and places in the Americas—but you didn’t expect the same thing over and over: The man who made the intimate drama Passion Fish also made the urban sci-fi satire The Brother From Another Planet. Over the past 20 years, however, he has increasingly found his material by cross-sectioning communities in transition, especially in regard to race and class, and handing over the resulting dramas to ensemble casts. It’s the approach that resulted in the sublime Lone Star, but it has also become a bit cookie-cutter, stamping out Saylesian widgets that range from the underrated (the gutsy Limbo) to the overrated (the wan Sunshine State) to the fairly dire (Silver City, little seen and good for all concerned). Honeydripper doesn’t conform to the mold exactly—it’s a period piece, with a predominantly black cast—but it finds what appears to be Sayles’ default style hardening into an outsized trope.
It’s Alabama, 1950, and piano player Pine Top Purvis (Danny Glover) finds himself on the verge of losing his nightclub thanks to all the business he’s lost to the newfangled jukebox at a nearby spot. A purist, he nonetheless books flash new out-of-town act Guitar Sam to bring in the young crowd for one big night to fend off foreclosure. Of course, this being the Jim Crow South, there’s a sinister white sheriff (Stacy Keach), and this being a movie, there’s also a quasi-magical blind bluesman/Greek chorus (Keb Mo’). This being a Sayles movie, there are various interweaving secondary and tertiary storylines and the usual off-note cameo from the director.
The overarching theme here is that change represents a continuation, not just an end, and Sayles finds a good locus for that idea in Pine Top facing the death of the blues as a going concern. At one point Glover delivers an astounding Sayles speech in which he ponders the first African slave to play a New World piano, linking Pine Top’s music back generations just as the rest of the film projects it forward. But despite all the Saylesian interweaving, Honeydripper feels too much like a series of set pieces, and uneven ones at that, barely held together with feeble plotting and crossed fingers; while stellar veterans like Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Albert Hall hold up their end, wobbly newcomers like Yaya DaCosta (as Pine Top’s daughter) and Gary Clark Jr. (as the most callow, insipid traveling bluesman ever to hop a freight) further prevent Sayles from closing the deal. Maybe the Lone Star template should take a rest until the material is as strong as Lone Star’s was.
Like Sayles, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai has carved out a signature style, his based on sumptuous expressionistic visuals and semi-improvised meditations on memory and love, and like Sayles, he’s made his share of contemporary classics (see Chungking Express and Happy Together, for starters). My Blueberry Nights, in some ways, represents a fresh start for Wong: It’s his first film in English and his first film in more than 15 years without cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Yet fresh it is not.
The script, co-written by crime novelist Lawrence Block, of all people, plays like pure Wong nonetheless: Elizabeth (singer Norah Jones) gets her heart broken in New York City, commiserates over pie with café owner Jeremy (Jude Law), then sets out on a road trip across country with no particular aim, stumbling into odd adventures of the heart (via the likes of Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, and Sayles regular David Straitharn), musing aloud via letters back to Jeremy all the way. Cinematographer Darius Khondji ably subs for Doyle, stripping away any vestigial Hong Kong grit to create a luminous late-afternoon/late-night America for Jones to wander, and the relatively orderly unfolding of events suggests that the notoriously shoot-first-ask-questions-later Wong actually consulted Block’s script. So why does My Blueberry Nights feel like a pleasant but flimsy illusion rather than real magic? It could be because, while Jones does herself or the movie no disservice, she’s no Maggie Cheung, one of Wong’s regular HK leading ladies. Or it could be that the director’s peculiar melancholy whimsy just doesn’t play as well in English, or in an American setting, even with no Wal-Marts in sight. Or maybe Wong’s style, as beguiling as it can be, even here, needs a little more changing up than mere language and scenery.