If you asked most foreign filmmakers how they want to spend their career, I think few would say ‘go to America and squander my considerable talent on something that’s below me’. Fewer still would say ‘pour my heart out into a labour of love that’s actually a giant mess of Americana clichés and see it die miserably’. Somehow, this second option is more widespread than you would think. Just a couple of years ago, seasoned vet Bertrand Tavernier made his American debut with the dull New Orleans-set detective thriller In the Electric Mist. It was so poorly handled that it received a straight-to-DVD release before coming out in theaters. While not incompetent by any stretch of the imagination, In the Electric Mist was characterized by a blatant outsider’s point-of-view on America that made it curiously antiseptic (but on the other hand, without this we wouldn’t have the handful of scenes where Tommy Lee Jones gets advice from the ghost of a Confederate soldier played by The Band’s Levon Helm). The French are apparently repulsed and enamoured in equal measures with American culture, making their forays into American filmmaking scattershot at best.
Indeed, French directors have had spotty track records when moving stateside. François Truffaut had a notoriously hard time making Fahrenheit 451 while Claude Chabrol’s few English-language films are considerably more obscure than their Gallic counterparts. Add Olivier Dahan to the top of that pile. After the considerable world-wide success of his Edith Piaf biopic La vie en rose (which netted Marion Cotillard an Oscar and made her a viable star in the US), he used the momentum he’d gained to make his English-language debut. It stars a couple of Oscar winners, has a soundtrack comprising of new songs by Bob fucking Dylan… and yet chances are you’ve never heard of it. How does a so-hot-right-now director go from dream project to home-video dump in one fell swoop?
The film opens with Jane Wyatt (Zellweger) drinking by herself in one of those down-home honkytonks where the put the ‘Cold Drinks’ neon on the inside of the bar. She’s approached by a handsome-yet-dorky insurance salesman who immediately begins to wax poetic about how interesting she looks. When he invites her for a game of pool, she wheels herself away from the table and reveals she’s in a wheelchair, which sends her insurance salesman beau running like the wind. We’re also introduced to Joey (Whitaker), a slow-witted tic-fest of a man who we first see mumbling to himself while lying down in the parking lot of a garage. Joey and Jane are best friends, outcast partners in crime and wounded souls extraordinaire.
If this sounds like an updated version of the seminal Whoopi Goldberg / Jim Belushi classic Homer & Eddie, well, it kind of is. This is the type of movie where the filmmakers have so much trouble conveying the fucked-up state of the characters that the tics and neuroses are piled on with no rhyme or reason and characters say shit to each other like ‘You hide from the world ‘cause you got two wheels instead of legs, you don’t sing anymore, YOU’RE BARELY ALIVE! All you do is sleep!’ and the subject of the abuse retorts ‘Well at least I don’t talk to the air like a crazy freak!’. It’s the laziest kind of tear-jerky screenwriting: people who have known each other for seven years probably wouldn’t scream exposition at each other like that but, then again, who am I to judge them with my normalness?
A paranormal author Joey likes is giving a talk two states over and Joey convinces Jane to drive there, claiming he needs to find out if he’s the only one who hears voices (I’m going to go with a tentative ‘probably not’ at this point). The reason he’s actually driving there is because he’s found an unopened letter from Jane’s son who she presumably gave up for adoption at some point. He’s inviting his biological mother to his first communion and Joey thinks it would be a wonderful idea to trick Jane into going (again, going to go with a ‘probably not’ at this point). They’re barely out of town that their car fucking explodes. Truly off to a great start.
The road trip movie is a seminally American (or certainly North American) genre for a very simple reason: there’s not many other places on Earth where you can drive for 15 hours on end and remain in the same country, let alone the same state. I suppose that’s where a lot of the clichés (and there are a lot here) stem from; if you road trip like this in France, it won’t take long before you’re in Germany or Italy. Thus, French road trips don’t come with the preconceived romanticism they do here. In that sense there’s a misguided, kind of alien approach to the road trip in here that makes the film doubly embarrassing. Most road trip movies are structured in the same way with random encounters, screaming matches and heartfelt revelations scattered throughout, but the doe-eyed amazement that Dahan brings to even the dumbest fucking development is extremely off-putting.
Our brave leads soldier on after obtaining a car from skeezeball Elias Koteas, who somehow ends up following them, putting the moves on Jane (citing that he, too, is crippled – crippled in his heart) and bailing with the car. They end up on a bus where Joey befriends a young woman (Madeline Zima) he thinks is an angel (her jacket has angel wings, you know, these things happens) whose husband has disappeared. They barrel through a series of clichés: they stop for a barbecue, watch some sweet fireworks, go to a diner for apple pie, have a yelling match by the side of the road… (As an aside, they have an extremely lax schedule here; who leaves for a specific date with seven fucking days to spare?)
It’s an almost parodic checklist approach to the road trip movie and the American south as seen from ze Frenchman’s perspective but all of Dahan’s reference points seem culled from other movies. Far be it for me to assume Dahan wrote it in Paris while stuffing his face with croissants and foie gras; for all I know, he spent six months immersed in the lives of sad Southerners, befriending the local diner’s waitress and shooting at tin cans in a field as preparation. Still, there isn’t a genuine bone in My Own Love Song’s body that it didn’t pilfer from the remains of Rain Man or even The Wizard of Oz. With the recent glut of precise homages to 80’s genre films (Paul, Hobo with a Shotgun, etc.), it almost feels like Dahan inadvertently made an homage to cheesy, dated road movies like The Wizard or the aforementioned Homer & Eddie. Its cheese quotient is remarkably high throughout, from Zellweger’s (thankfully) intermittent country-fried narration (there’s a painful sequence late in the game where she talks lovingly about her favourite birds while animated renditions of them putter about in the background) to a rather embarrassing scene where they stumble upon a crazy old man (played by Nick Nolte… or, I should say, embodied by Nick Nolte since I doubt Nick Nolte is actually in character) playing guitar in a barn who tells them the tale of Robert Johnson as if no one had ever heard of it before.
In fact, can we just can it on the whole Robert Johnson thing for a while? This is an open letter to all creative types. Robert Johnson’s story is wonderful and evocative and always topical – so can we just stop dropping it in for instant gravitas for a while? It’s played out and repetitive and exactly the kind of thing that I’m talking about when I say Dahan trades in overused Americana clichés. I’m not just talking movies: books, television and music too. I’m not aware of too many sculptures and paintings but I’m sure they exist as well. We get it. Unless you can have Robert Johnson trading sweet licks with Joe Satriani or somehow find a way to work it into Guitar Hero, I’M NOT HAVING IT.
The rest of the film unfolds with no real surprises but a whole heapin’ lot of corny moments (including, of course, the part where Zellweger finally gets the guts to get back on stage and make a melodramatic speech). Amongst the film’s positive elements is the often gorgeous cinematography by Matthew Libatique (frequent collaborator of Darren Aronofsky and Spike Lee, amongst others). Although the film has its share of cheesy compositions (Dahan is especially fond of the extreme wide shot of characters looking yonder), they all look fucking fantastic (except perhaps an ill-advised split-screen car chase that’s 100% cartoon). The Dylan score (mostly taken from his last album, Together Through Life) is usually well-utilized; the film’s cheesiest moments tellingly use music other than Dylan’s contributions.
The two leads may have seemed like a coup on paper: both are recent Oscar winners and we all know that Oscars make for excellent copy. However, we’re probably dealing with the two most annoying Oscar winners in recent memory. Zellweger’s last few movies have gone straight-to-DVD and Whitaker’s post-Last King of Scotland career is filled with showboaty roles in melodramatic vanity projects (The Experiment, Powder Blue, Fragments, The Air I Breathe, Ripple Effect, the list goes on). Consequently, neither of them brings much to the fold. Zellweger is nicely muted but she’s saddled with the impossible task of making the non-stop melancholy palatable or relatable. Whitaker, on the other hand, is massively over-the-top and mannered. I’d really like to see Whitaker take this shtick to dumb action movies rather than consistently being the most egregiously over-the-top part of overwrought weepies.
There’s a part late in the film where Zellweger makes another of her overwrought voice-over speeches about how everyone tries to do what they can and everyone you meet shapes the way you are while a series of filmed portraits of people standing in the foreground (the kind you see in life insurance ads) unfolds on-screen. That Dahan decided to pair his already-unnecessary rhapsodising with techniques that recall terribly cheesy ads about getting a cheaper mortgage is perhaps the least surprising thing about a movie that seems culled from a massive stew of Lifetime channel TV movies, country music-videos, Rain Man and its subsequent rip-offs and Touched by an Angel. It’s just an all-around mess.
So why does it exist?
The situation here isn’t so much ‘why does it exist?’ so much as ‘why is this the way it is?’. Of course there’s no question why an award-winning foreign director would opt to make an American movie with a couple of Oscar winners. That shit happens a dozen times a year. It’s the misguided, alien’s-POV feel of the movie that raises eyebrows. Even the most seasoned of directors would have trouble making this misguided barrage of tropes into the life-affirming weeper Dahan wants it to be. It doesn’t even have the nakedly personal feel of the most notorious pet-projects (Elizabethtown comes to mind). From Nolte’s Crazy Heart-like performance to the indie-tastic hand-drawn credits, My Own Love Song could almost be a Gallic riff on the Seltzer and Friedberg shitfests. You could call it Amerloque Movie.