Oliveier Dahan’s My Own Love Song is the latest entry into this creaky sweepstakes. Oscar winners Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker play Jane and Joey, who share the kind of friendship you tend to see more in movies than in real life. She was a successful country music singer whose career was cut short by a wreck that put her in a wheelchair, killed her husband, and caused her to give up singing and put her son up for adoption. Joey, who is (as we say where I’m from) “not quite right,” lost most of his family in an accident as well, so he copes by talking to their angels and ghosts. Joey’s favorite author on the subject is doing an appearance within driving distance, so he talks Jane into accompanying him there; she doesn’t know that he’s planning to trick her into attending her estranged son’s first communion, which the boy invited her to in a letter she never opened (but Joey did).
Of course, nothing goes as planned; there are car breakdowns and tag-alongs and thefts and odd encounters, all leading to the “I’m getting too old for this shit” of road trip movies, the moment when Jane utters the immortal line, “And now we’re all stuck here in the middle of God-knows-where!” Dahan, who also directed La Vie en Rose, wrote the script—his first in English, so maybe he doesn’t realize that Americans only say things like that in movies (and they also don’t say each other’s names every time they speak to each other). But none of the dialogue is as bad as Zellweger’s occasional voice-over narration, which sounds like warmed-over Tennessee Williams.
The damage his script leaves undone, his look-ma-no-hands direction takes care of. In its early scenes, the film is visually stimulating; his cinematographer is the excellent Matthew Libatique (frequent collaborator to Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky), and there’s a warmly lyrical quality to some of the quieter passages, in which the frames are lovingly arranged and the lighting is moody and atmospheric. But when the script gives us an improbable car chase, Dahan does it in an irritating series of moving and sliding split-screen images, an irritating, show-off move that clutters up the screen and takes us out of the action. When a fellow traveler (Madeline Zima) gets the phone call they’ve been building up to since her introduction, it’s done in a big obnoxious circling shot that pulls us right out of the moment—they’re staging distractions to soften the obvious payoff. Worst of all, when Nick Nolte enters the picture and gives it an immediate jolt of dangerous energy, it’s undercut; as soon as he gets something going, Dahan goes to a cheesy illustration of the story he’s telling (that of Robert Johnson at the crossroads, which is relayed as if it’s some little-known folk tale). But even with all of the missteps, the elements are still in place for the climactic scene to move us—and then it’s blown by the cornball staging.
Whitaker, who hasn’t done much of anything resembling a good movie since he won his Oscar for The Last King of Scotland , doesn’t acquit himself any here. He’s doing the worst kind of overheated acting—playing “slow”, hammering his stutter, projecting his Southern drawl to the rafters. It’s not a characterization; it’s a collection of affectations. Zellweger, de-glammed but still doing her weird lemon face, wisely chooses to underplay; she has some nice moments, and her two songs are well-performed. The songs and score variations of them are contributed by Bob Dylan, most from his last album Together Through Life; they lend the picture a swampy atmosphere that it certainly doesn’t earn on its own.
My Own Love Song is rigidly schematic filmmaking, closely following a blueprint that is weathered from age and overuse. Within the first ten minutes, you can guess at the pat, trumped-up conflicts that will come to a head on the road. Will she sing again? Will she see her son? Will Joey’s favorite religious author turn out to be a laughably broad, racist charlatan? If you don’t know the answers to those questions, you haven’t seen enough movies. And if you haven’t seen enough movies, you might not notice that everything in this one has been done before, and better.
"My Own Love Song" screens April 24 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.