NORWEGIAN WOOD isn't bad, which is an accomplishment in and of itself; it also isn't particularly good, which kind of detracts from the whole "Well, at least they didn't totally screw it up" thing. Based on Haruki Murakami's extraordinary 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood's directed by The Scent of Green Papaya's Tran Anh Hung, who, if nothing else, knows how to make movies that are pretty to look at, and he had the good taste to hire Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood to do the film's score. As anyone who's watched There Will Be Blood or Bodysong with the speakers jacked up can attest, Greenwood could make Ghost Rider feel emotionally wrenching if he wanted to.
What neither Tran nor Greenwood can do, though, is translate the grace and power of Murakami's words to the screen. Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) is a college student in 1960s Tokyo whose life is defined by radically different relationships with three women: There's cute Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), who flirts but has a boyfriend; there's Naoko (Babel's Rinko Kikuchi), who'd be the love of his life if she wasn't stuck inside a rural insane asylum; and there's the older, wiser Reiko (Reika Kirishima), Naoko's fellow patient/caretaker/confidant. As Watanabe travels between Tokyo and the asylum—and, in the meantime, has a few adventures, mostly of the depressing sort, with his playboy pal Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama)—he bounces between goals and infatuations and turn-ons, constantly confronted with different takes on sensuality.
The performances here are solid—particularly Mizuhara—and the film's production design, cinematography, and music are all top-notch. But it's in the characters—the only part of Norwegian Wood that really matters—that Tran can't come close to his source material. Like most of Murakami's protagonists, Watanabe spends about 99.99 percent of his time inside his head—someplace Murakami can take us, but Tran can't. It also doesn't help that Watanabe is largely defined by those around him—which means that since we don't get to know Norwegian Wood's women all that well either, this story about love, sex, longing, and sadness, which should be built on a strong emotional core, instead feels centered around a void.
But still: It's worth noting that Tran's film captures more of Murakami's deceptively simple novel than it has any right to, in large part thanks to Greenwood's effective score, and, yeah, that one Beatles song. It's not bad! It's just that those looking for their maximum daily dose of Murakami Melancholy™—which, I imagine, make up the entirety of this film's target audience—will be better served by a trip to Powell's.