“I laughed, I cried.” It’s an old platitude, but I admire any film that strives to induce it. To do so is daring nowadays; it requires faith in the modernist attributes of authenticity and emotional honesty. The filmmaker has to offer himself/herself up on the screen for judgment, to stand in front of the audience emotionally naked.
So, I admire the ambition of My One and Only, which attempts to mash a pair of coming-of-age stories into a period piece, a road film, a screwball comedy, and a family drama. Set in 1953, the story -- inspired by the teenage years of actor George Hamilton (who also served as executive producer) -- follows Ann Devereaux (Renée Zellweger) as a socialite who catches her husband (Kevin Bacon, in an embarrassing Tom Waits impersonation) having one affair too many. She leaves him, taking her two sons, George (Logan Lerman) and Robbie (Mark Rendall) on a cross-country search for a new breadwinner.
It’s the dialogue that kills it. The main characters talk almost exclusively about the main narrative and enunciate, in detail, their desires and fears. So, not only do the constant arguments between George and his mother come off forced, with their stances fully-formed from the start, but there’s nowhere for the relationship to go. Instead, the on-the-nose banter saps the film of subtext, robs the characters of dimensionality, and prevents the building of tension.
All this hurts the ambitious turns of tone. Clearly, the drama aspect doesn’t work. But the screwball element isn’t witty enough either, and void of a sense of mischief, many one-liners sound malicious. But one wonders, even with sharp wit and strong sentiments, if this mish-mash could ever function without hiccups. Genre provides an audience with a stable grounding, and when one doesn’t know whether a scene is meant to make them laugh or cry, they tend to do neither.
Lerman comes out of the film looking the best. His role has more subtle turns than the others, and his rants at least seem befitting of his youth. Zellweger does her damnedest with the thin material; she’s an island of Panglossian shallowness, enduring a series of cartoonishly despicable suitors (it’ll be hard to find a more man-hating film this year). George’s brother, Robbie, is a gay Uncle Tom of sorts — a stereotypical queer here for comic relief.
The film does have a few great glimmers of insight and wit. These mostly arrive in anecdotal scenes tangential to the plot. In one, a love interest asks Michael if he’s ever seen a pair of breasts, mishearing his response of “once” as “one.” In another, a suitor of his mother has one piece of advice when it comes to women: always bring a sweater. In these moments, the film dials back its ambitions and offers us little slices of modest humor that feel delightfully effortless.
But, ultimately, the very ambition I admired is what undoes My One and Only. Mostly style and little substance, the film would rather us laugh and cry than trust its content.