My Own Love Song -- Film Review

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PARIS -- French director Olivier Dahan earned some name recognition stateside with "La Vie en Rose," an erratic Edith Piaf biopic boosted by Marion Cotillard's Oscar-winning performance. But his first full-fledged venture into American moviemaking is an even shakier proposition. Starring Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker as a wheelchair-bound Southern singer and her schizophrenic best friend, "My Own Love Song" is a sappy, weakly plotted road movie with a wildly self-conscious style probably meant to disguise its cliches.

The prestigious lead duo might generate interest, but the combination of prickly themes (physical and mental disability) and bland storytelling indicate only modest boxoffice potential.

"Love Song" starts promisingly with a stinging scene in which a man hits on Jane (Zellweger) in a Kansas City bar, only to recoil when he spots her wheelchair. Dahan moves his camera in close, capturing the wariness, arousal and disappointment that play out progressively across her face.

During the next 20 minutes or so, Dahan, who also wrote the screenplay, establishes Jane's friendship with Joey, a black former fireman (Whitaker) who talks to ghosts (and occasionally spends time in a psychiatric hospital). These sequences have enough melancholy charm that one can forgive some forced banter between Jane and Joey. Zellweger and Whitaker make an appealing odd couple; her rounded face and crinkly smile mesh nicely with his bearish build and theatrical cadences.

The actors are so skillful (with the exception of weepy mugging from Zellweger in singing scenes that make one grateful she's no longer attached to the Janis Joplin biopic) that it's dismaying to see the film disintegrate as soon as the plot mechanics lurch into motion.

Jane and Joey hit the road and head for Louisiana to see a famous author who believes in ghosts and to stop by Jane's estranged son's birthday party. Along the way, they pick up a lovelorn drifter, an aging pothead and a vaguely sociopathic misfit (Elias Koteas) -- the latter of whom tries to coax Jane into sleeping with him, in a finely observed scene that suggests where the film might have gone if it had more grit and curiosity.

Instead, "Love Song" settles into an episodic stretch of mawkishly written confrontations and heart-to-hearts, on top of which Dahan piles on visual tricks from a sort of pan-genre directorial grab-bag -- fast motion, split screen, music video-style static shots of New Orleans residents, giant animated birds, swarms of glowing fireflies and an angel or two floating above.

Presumably, the director is trying to illustrate how the freedom of the American road allows these two lonely outsiders to feel again, setting their imaginations aflame and connecting them with a world beyond their problems. But he seems far more interested in the whimsy he's force-feeding us than in the characters who are meant to inspire it.

Nick Nolte and Madeline Zima overact in underwritten supporting parts as two of the friends Jane and Joey pick up along the way. Meanwhile, Bob Dylan wrote several new songs featured in the film. He'll likely be remembered for other things.

Opened: Wednesday, April 7 (France)
Production: Legende Films
Cast: Renee Zellweger, Forest Whitaker, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Madeline Zima
Director-screenwriter: Olivier Dahan
Producers: Olivier Dahan, Alain Goldman
Executive producers: Guy Anthome, James W. Skotchdopole
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Jan Roelfs
Costume designer: Marie-Sylvie Deveau
Editors: Richard Marizy, Stan Collet
No rating, 105 minutes
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