Too bad that My One and Only, which has a lot going for it even apart from the divine Renée Zellweger in the principal role, finally turns itself into a pretty pedestrian celebrity biopic. As the film takes some trouble to keep from us the name of the celebrity until the very end, I will not reveal it here, though a hint is provided when single mother Anne Devereaux, played by Miss Zellweger, having arrived in sunny California after a cross-country trip in a robin’s egg blue Cadillac in 1953, tells her bookish teenage son: “Get some color, George, you’re as white as a nun’s behind.” Besides being a po-mo style in-joke, that striking metaphor is also meant to be an example of mom’s wit, characteristically expressed (as George had told the Cadillac dealer in New York at the outset of their journey) aphoristically.
Besides her twin rules to live by, which are “never look in the rear view mirror” — not even the literal rear view mirror, which makes for an awkward joke or two — and “in the end, everything works out; it always does,” she is the mistress of a vast store of purpose-built proverbs. “That man is all potatoes and no meat,” she says; or “A woman is never so intelligent to a man as when she is listening to him.” She’s got a million of them, and they’re all just about as short of genuine wit or humor — not much, that is, but enough. The movie’s other great humor-mine is the fact that Anne’s second son, Robbie (Mark Rendall), is a flaming homosexual (are you still allowed to say that?) but, this being 1953, he doesn’t know it yet. In short, My One and Only is one of those movies — is it my imagination or are they increasing in number — that should be called so funny you forget to laugh.
All the same, it is engaging enough that its lack of laughs only really dawns on you about half-way through. The story of a faded Southern belle who buys the Cadillac and takes off on her transcontinental journey with her two sons after catching her band-leader husband (Kevin Bacon) with a floozie in their New York apartment at least holds our interest. This being 1953 — and the reminders of that fact in terms of commercial jingles and suchlike from that era become a little bit tiresome — her quest is to find another, more congenial husband, at first among her legion of former beaux and then wherever she can find one. When, for example, after a stop in Boston and near-marriage to a tyrannical anti-communist Army officer (Chris Noth) — it probably couldn’t be considered a Hollywood product without some such gratuitous swipe at 1950s-style conservatism — they get to Pittsburgh, mom tells her sons that “I almost married a man in this city.
George replies: “You almost married a man in every city.”
“Sarcasm is the refuge of scoundrels,” sniffs mom, aphoristically.
The tipping point where humor dips just a bit too far into pathos comes when, abandoned by yet another rich prospect, Anne chats up a man in a hotel bar who turns out to be a detective and arrests her for solicitation. We like her a lot better when she is pronouncing that “no matter what happens in our lives, there are standards that must be maintained.” Pretty clearly, we are meant to take her attachment to this principle seriously, yet the movie is so resolutely attached to the teenage boy’s point of view that she appears to us, as she must appear to him, rather a fantastical creature than someone to be taken quite seriously. He’s too busy asking himself what would Holden Caulfield do to learn anything useful from her, and I don’t know if I’m quite prepared to believe that.
At its heart, we may find Mr. Bacon’s philandering band-leader telling his son that his mother’s problem is that she always thought she was too good to work, being in her own eyes some kind of “Southern royalty.” As his words of wisdom to the boy, he adds that “Your mother has got delusions of grandeur. Take it from me, kid, in the real world, class don’t count for nothing. If it ain’t in the bank it ain’t anywhere.” The worst thing that can be said about My One and Only is that you can’t be quite sure that that isn’t its point of view too.