Friday, October 9, 2009

My One and Only: One to keep

My One and Only  (2009) • View trailer for My One and Only
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.9.09
Buy DVD: My One and Only

The sturdy road picture genre usually concerns a journey of the soul in addition to actual travel, often with multiple stops that reveal telling facets of the characters involved.

Although billed as a light romantic comedy, My One and Only frequently dips into melancholy, and sometimes quite unexpectedly. The film is fueled by another of Renee Zellweger's carefully nuanced performances: in this case a mid-1950s Southern belle who, having suffered one indignity too many from her philandering husband, takes off in a sparkling new soft-top Cadillac Eldorado with her two teenage sons.
Putting on a false front is what Ann Devereaux (Renee Zellweger) does best, so
she'll seize any opportunity for celebration, no matter how slight. Her two sons
react to such antics quite differently: Robbie (Mark Rendall, left) generally is
content to play along, while the far more pragmatic George (Logan Lerman)
inevitably has uncomfortable questions.

Her goal: a better father figure and provider for the boys, and a better companion for herself.

Director Richard Loncraine is better known across the pond for earlier films such as Brimstone & Treacle (1982) and Bellman and True (1987); his recent "movie star efforts"  Wimbledon and Firewall  were respectable but not particularly memorable.

On the other hand, he helmed a crackerjack episode of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, and he has a genuine gift for coaxing telling performances during quietly intimate moments. My One and Only has many of these, thanks to a whimsically quirky script from Charlie Peters, working far above the slapstick junk with which he was involved in the 1980s and '90s.

Hollywood often brings out the worst in young writers, and Peters was on the fast track to nowhere with the likes of Hot to Trot, My Father the Hero and Krippendorf's Tribe. But an 11-year industry hiatus seems to have sharpened his skills, or maybe he simply needed the right material; whatever the reason, My One and Only displays sensitivity and authenticity in equal measure.

Things begin swiftly, when Ann Devereaux (Zellweger) returns home early from a shopping spree and finds her bandleader husband, Dan (Kevin Bacon, once again shining in a supporting role), in bed with a sweet young thing. Ever the polite society woman, Ann even helps this interloper dress before drawing herself up, facing Dan and announcing her imminent departure.

Dan, perhaps having heard it before, doesn't believe she'll go through with it; for all her good breeding  indeed, because of her good breeding  Ann has been groomed to be little but an appendage to (ideally) a respectful gentleman.

No matter. Calmly accepting responsibility for her two teenage sons as well  Robbie (Mark Rendall), from a previous marriage, and George (Logan Lerman)  Ann packs her things, arranges for the purchase of a new car, and roars off. Her mantra, as George glances back toward their home: "Never look in the rear-view mirror."

Their subsequent adventures could have taken place in different neighborhoods of any single large city, but of course it's more interesting  and grants this trio the illusion of forward progress  when each escapade involves another port o' call along those endless stretches of highway so frequently romanticized by those who look back on the '50s. Besides, this also gives the blindingly effeminate Robbie an excuse to stitch another city name and telling image on the needlework that occupies his time on the road.

Ann has a roster of former beaus  some available and willing, some not  and other encounters are more spontaneous. Each attempt, and unexpected result, takes a little more out of Ann's carefully chiseled perkiness. Zellweger catches this duality unerringly, retaining out heart despite behaving very much like a call girl in search of a pimp. The distinction is all a matter of attitude and apparel, we eventually realize, and Ann won't even let pride interfere with her determination to make a home for the three of them.

Well ... pride doesn't often get in the way. When the facade crumbles, as it does late one night when Ann rebuffs some unpleasant sexual advances and literally gets tossed out of a car, the weary despair creeps into the corners of Zellweger's eyes.

To a great degree, Ann remains sympathetic because we experience much of her behavior as filtered by George, who narrates this tale and contributes much by way of mordant analysis and frequently pungent one-liners. Somewhere along the way, perhaps between the stiffly condescending military man (Chris Noth) and the paint store mogul (David Koechner), this ceases to be Ann's story, and instead morphs into George's coming-of-age saga.

Lerman, so well remembered from the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, has several of his own poignant scenes. The first comes with young Molly C. Quinn, a fetching presence on TV's Castle, cast here as Paula, a big-city teen growing up much too quickly. Under different, better circumstances, we can imagine George and Paula building a life together, but that's not to be; George is able only to show this girl the good manners she deserves but obviously hasn't yet received.

And Quinn's flinty eyes reveal a newfound self-respect, when she finally watches George drive away, once more dragged by his mother to a new destination.

Lerman also has a telling moment with Bacon, when George finally rebels and  against his mother's strong caution  returns to his father, with the expectation of living with him. The encounter proves devastating, of course, with both Dan and George crumbling in their respective ways: the former, realizing that he's now living down to his son's worst expectation; and the latter, having to watch this happen.

But George is by no means the one-note "villain" of this piece. He does eventually catch up with Ann again, and the intensity of this encounter is palpable: We've simply no idea how the scene will play out. Bacon and Zellweger both ratchet up the tension, while also conveying the closeness and regret that can come only from two people very much in love ... even if they're not right for each other.

Nick Stahl has a memorable part as Paula's older brother, Bud, a T-shirted, blue-collar fellow who seems no more than a heartbeat removed from membership in a street gang, but who nonetheless treats Ann with a dignity that she aches to receive from somebody more polished. Class is everything in her world, much to her regret; Ann never could marry for love over money. She knows this  as does Bud  and this knowledge leaves visible wounds on both of them.

The core dynamic revolves around Ann and George, though, and we wonder if this road trip represents the means by which he'll finally stand up to his mother and set off on his own. George has his own image of what a mother should be: the person who knows him best. But that way lies the same sort of disappointment he experienced with his father, because the self-absorbed Ann couldn't begin to identify (for example) George's favorite color, or his favorite book ('Catcher in the Rye').

In great contrast, the more superficial Robbie, perhaps aware of their mother's limitations, is careful not to stray into emotionally tempestuous waters. He regards each new stop as an excuse to help Ann accessorize properly for her next potential conquest, while speaking rapturously about his desire to act.

Alas, they never linger in one place long enough for the promise he shows, in each high school drama class, to be realized during an actual auditorium performance.

Because this film has remained under the radar, most viewers are likely to be caught off-guard by the revelation contained within its final scene: a surprise I'll not spoil here. It will, however, force an immediate re-evaluation of this already charming character study.

My One and Only is one of those under-publicized little films that makes going to the movies such a pleasure. It deserves your attention.

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