It's close to midnight, an elevated train passes overhead and broken-hearted nighthawks gather in the lonely nooks and crannies of the city. It's another Wong Kar-wai nocturne, only this time the city isn't Hong Kong but New York, the cast speaks English and the Wong's screenplay is a fruitful collaboration with Edgar-winning noir novelist Lawrence Block.
Late one night in Manhattan, an emotionally distraught young woman named Elizabeth (pop singer/songwriter Norah Jones, making her big-screen debut) walks into a tiny cafe and hands the manager, Jeremy (Jude Law), a set of keys. Elizabeth knows her boyfriend is a regular at the cafe -- he comes for the meatloaf -- and she also knows he's been cheating on her, and asks Jeremy to give him her set of keys the next time he shows up. Jeremy puts the keys in a fishbowl filled with many others -- each set representing a love story with a sad ending, his own among them -- and promises to keep an eye out, but Elizabeth can't help returning every few days to see if the keys are still there, and to dig empathetically into one of the lonely blueberry pies that remain untouched at the end of the night. Whether she knows it or not, Jeremy has begun to fall for her -- he even begins reserving a spot for her at the counter -- but one night she stops coming in. While walking past her boyfriend's apartment, Elizabeth spots him at the window with another woman, and instead of simply crossing the street and to say goodbye, she takes the long way around: She heads south to Memphis, where she gets a job slinging hash in a diner during the day and serving drinks at honky-tonk at night. She meets Arnie (David Strathairn), an alcoholic cop with a pocket full of sobriety chips -- one for each time he quit drinking -- and a busted-up heart. Arnie can't let go of his estranged younger wife, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz), a party girl who's been stepping out with a guy named Randy (Benjamin Kanes). Elizabeth becomes a spectator to their drama, and when it ends in tragedy, she catches a bus west. While working as a cocktail waitress at a small Nevada casino, she meets Leslie (Natalie Portman), a high-roller who's reads people well enough to know you can't trust anyone, not even yourself. When Leslie bets big and loses, Leslie hits Elizabeth up for a stake, promising her a third of the pot if she wins and her brand new Jag if she doesn't. At the end of a long night, Leslie is about to hand over the keys, but first asks for a ride to Vegas where a difficult confrontation with the past awaits. Throughout her journey, Elizabeth sends postcards home to Jeremy, who is still keeping a counter seat waiting for her should she ever return.
Over 20 minutes have been shorn from the cut of the film that was shown at 2007 Cannes Film Festival where it was met with lukewarm-to-negatives reviews, and the editing might account for the slight, incomplete feel to the Nevada section. But despite its flaws, the film has the same dreamy, romantic melancholy that distinguishes Wong's best films. The first to be shot by someone other than Wong's long-time collaborator Christopher Doyle -- Darius Khondji served as cinematographer -- the film is also strikingly beautiful: The shifting color palette -- a black-lit phosphorescence for New York, reds and browns for Memphis, a sun-baked gold for Nevada -- and production design is gorgeous to look at, as is the cast. Block's convincingly world-weary dialogue, meanwhile, offers an interesting counterbalance to Wong's sometimes airy, heart-wide-open romanticism.
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