I suppose I should start this by saying that I worship at the altar of Wong. He holds a very special place in my heart, a part of my personal pantheon of artists from any medium along with others like Edward Hopper and Andre Kertesz.
In the Mood for Love is actually one of the two films that I always go back and forth between when asked what my "favorite" film is (the other being Sans Soleil), and I honestly believe it will be one of the films to truly stand the test of time from this decade.
And so, I was quite surprised that the director that has given me so much from Days of Being Wild on proceeded to give me this. I, too, thought it a poor film.
However, it seems I don't loathe it to the same degree as many others here. I really think Beaver comes pretty closely to the truth: " less an overt misstep than a sidestep into shallower waters." I still think it fails even in its more modest ambitions, but I don't think it's an outright disaster.
First, I will say that the print journalists and critics may have got the thumbs up/down right, but they gave it the thumbs down for all the wrong reasons. The cliche, trite dialogue is NOT the issue here. Wong's films have ALWAYS had cliche, trite, even "cheesy" dialogue. Complaining that Wong's characters speak in romantic cliche is like complaining that the characters in David Lynch films speak in too-cryptic phrases. That's really part of the point, part of the general thematic structure of the film. So is the obvious, expository voice-over (another feature that many critics seemed to pick up on for the first time in this film that has been a feature in much of Wong's work).
The oneiric nature of Wong's films is oft-commented on, but rarely explored in any great detail. But it is ESSENTIAL to the way his films work. Wong is not a "realist" in any way, shape, or form. I don't think anybody would try to claim otherwise. His films leap STRAIGHT from the psyche of his characters. His movies are their dreams and fantasies, and as such, their romantic impulses are revealed unfiltered, in all their unabashed and incredibly sincere schmaltziness. It's always been one of the charms of his films for me. His writing is as stylized as his visuals.
Also, the fact that he revisits his own filmography yet again is not an issue, either, though many felt it was. Again, it's time for critics to start engaging Wong's intense self-referentiality instead of simply commenting on it as though it's little more than a curiosity. This, too, is a very deliberate strategy. Wong's films are all about memory, about the inability to let go and move on: fear of transience. And thus, Wong's films refuse to let go of one another, constantly remembering each other. It's an incredibly organic form for his work to take, and Wong, probably more than any other filmmaker working today, is truly creating a series of films that not only benefit from being read as one large tapestry, but almost DEMAND such a reading. I think the reason people had such a problem with the revisiting of past work here is that this film is so much weaker than the others that the references felt like they were trying to make up for the deficiencies of the rest of the film by recalling superior works. But I was actually happy for the self-reference, and don't think it, in and of itself, was a problem.
The problem for me, rather, is that for the first time in his career Wong has made a film that feels very "plotted." The screenplay isn't poor because of the dialogue, but rather because the scenarios created don't capture those rapturous, meaningful quiet moments that make up Wong's other films. In every work previous to this, Wong crafted a series of moments that happened to coalesce into a narrative. Here, he had a narrative that he had to craft a bunch of scenes to relate. And it shows. I constantly felt as though I were being moved from point to point. But that was it. There was no real discovery in these scenes, no transcendent experiences. Just a bunch of plot points so that we could understand why Elizabeth ends up back in New York. For the first time, Wong tried desperately to find a point, and in doing so, missed it.
Tonally, the film doesn't work, either. The NY segments recall his spunkier work, while the middle segment is over-the-top melodrama, and the Nevada segment seems to have no mood at all (which is baffling, considering this is Wong.) And nothing gels. The two middle segments also aren't long enough to really explore their narratives or characters in any appreciable way. The implied narratives are too expansive to fit in these short segments (the multiple narratives of 2046, for example, are much more suited to their given length).
There are some positives, of course. I actually like Portman's extremely self-aware performance here. Her extremely self-conscious ticks really work for the character, and she brings a lot of energy to the film. Too bad her segment is so underdeveloped. Chan Marshall provides the stand-out performance of the film, though, and does so with only a minute or two of screen time.
And I disagree with the idea that this film isn't an aesthetic achievement. If anything, I think this, and Wong's pulp-short There's Only One Sun really prove that a Wong film will ALWAYS look like a Wong film, Doyle or not (though I would agree, his works which were collaborations with Doyle are probably visually superior). But this is still an intensely beautiful film, and Wong succeeds at somehow de-emphasizing line in favor of rendering his world in color and light, and yet often still crafting intensely striking compositions that underscore the emotional modulations of his characters. He also continues the trend started in 2046 of using the widescreen framings to create "unbalanced" compositions that stress the negative space as much as the positive (though, the effect is softened in this film).
And you're right, domino, that a lot of shot-reverse shot is used, but I think you'd find that it's actually quite a common structure in Wong's film. He's never shied away from this fairly standard cutting style. But I don't think it's lazily employed in Wong' films. For him, it is the perfect articulation of his concerns, because it allows his characters to inhabit the same "space" without sharing the same frame. And the inability to connect with others, even those in the closest proximity, is a recurrent theme in his work.