Reviewed at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.
One of my fondest memories of the Tribeca Film Festival involves the time I went to see “Tennessee,” the road trip drama in which Mariah Carey found her voice, literally and figuratively, and helped two lost souls find their way as well. It was an awful movie, but not in the fun way that the trio of friends sitting next to me had hoped, sneaking in a flask under one of their coats and making all sorts of snide comments about Carey before the film started. Unfortunately, the alcohol was more likely to put them to sleep rather than enhance their enjoyment of the film, which was a total bore.
It saddened me to think those guys probably weren’t at the premiere of “My Own Love Song,” which took essentially the exact same story and threw in scenes of animated flamingos and kingfishers, a batshit Forest Whitaker and Elias Koteas, and Nick Nolte serving up slices of a psychedelic chocolate cake. Sadly, these things overshadow Renee Zellweger’s first genuine performance in years as a wheelchair-bound singer who reluctantly travels down south to New Orleans when her mentally unstable pal (Whitaker) stumbles upon a letter from her son who she gave up for adoption.
The rosy glow that Zellweger once exuded has seemed to return, albeit under a thicket of brown hair and little makeup. It’s one of the rare examples of subtlety on the part of director Olivier Dahan (“Ma Vie En Rose”), who, like Wong Kar-wai and so many other foreign filmmakers, decided to make his English-language debut on a de Tocqueville-esque travelogue.
In some sense, it wouldn’t matter where “My Own Love Song” takes place, as Dahan explained during the post-screening Q & A how “it’s not a real realistic movie, it’s more about dreams,” but, like an early scene at the start of the film where Whitaker carries Zellweger into an ice cold lake during a day of fun in the sun, Dahan doesn’t ease us into the water.
We first meet Zellweger’s Jane Wyatt at a bar where she feigns interest in a farm machinery insurance agent who won’t take no for an answer — until she reveals her paralysis from behind a table. The first shot of Whitaker’s Joey has him laying flat in a parking lot as a galaxy of stars turns to asphalt. The pair are bonded by their shared trauma and add a third when a young married woman named Billie (Madeline Zima) shares a bus ride with them and explains how her husband has disappeared.
All three are looking for something, but in setting up tangible goals for each of the characters, Dahan makes a film that’s utterly adrift when it comes to a coherent narrative. For instance, don’t ask for the specifics when the trio is lured into Nolte’s cabin in the woods of Cairo, Mississippi by a guitar riff and then listen patiently as he recounts how Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in Clarksdale to play the blues, complete with a reenactment. Also, it’s best not to wonder why Zellweger is suddenly able to sing a stirring rendition of “This Land is Your Land” after years of refusing such requests (though the moment gives an idea of what she might’ve done had she played Janis Joplin, as was once planned).
To be fair, “My Own Love Song” couldn’t be anywhere near as bad as it is without being as ambitious as it is. The film features original music from Bob Dylan (I counted four of a reported 16 new songs composed specifically for the film), and frequent Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky cinematographer Matthew Libatique rarely stops using a steadicam — there’s a car chase in the film that is almost breathtaking between its constant movement and Dahan’s use of split-screens, until it gets confusing and ultimately frustrating.
You could also use those adjectives to describe Whitaker’s performance of the schizophrenic Joey; like Nicolas Cage, you can always count on Whitaker’s commitment to character, but you never know when you’re going to get “The Last King of Scotland” or something like this, which borders on parody with all of Joey’s strange tics and a half-baked romance that develops between he and Billie.
After the film’s international premiere at Tribeca, Dahan was warmly received by the minority of the audience that stayed, with those using their questions to praise the director for the dreamlike quality he brought to the film, which is why Zellweger’s Sarah may sum up the film’s appeal best when she asks during her wistful narration, “Should I believe or should I disappear?” The answer may be the former for some, but as the festival walkouts testified, the latter for most.
“My Own Love Song” is currently without U.S. distribution.
[Photos: “My Own Love Song,” Légende Films, 2010]