There’s something eminently appealing about the way Renee Zellweger’s circa 1953 New York City socialite dispenses with her philandering husband in the lovely little bit of nostalgia that is “My One and Only.”
She tosses some clothes in a suitcase, pushes the other woman out the door just for good measure, cleans out the safety deposit box, pulls her sons out of prep school, as soon as she can figure out which one they’re attending these days, and sets off on a grand adventure nestled in the cushy leather of a baby blue Coupe deVille.
No tears for Zellweger’s Ann Devereaux, and not a hair in that perfect blond bob out of place, at least not yet.
Ann may not be the nurturing kind, but she’s got a mother’s instinct for self-preservation and she’s determined to find a suitable replacement for her ex, a big-band leader smoothly played by Kevin Bacon, before the money runs out. That she’s many years beyond her courting prime hasn’t quite registered yet.
As 15-year-old George (Logan Lerman), behind the wheel for the first time in his life, glances in the rearview mirror, Ann looks over and says don’t bother, it’s only what’s ahead of you that matters. It’s Ann’s philosophy of life as much as a driving tip for her son, and from the looks of it, George understands too, and with an “I give up” shrug, he turns the Caddy toward Philly.
In British director Richard Loncraine’s good hands, the film becomes a bittersweet excursion through the country at a time when you could still depend on the kindness of strangers. It’s the people Ann knows who turn out to be the problem. There are the many old beaus she looks up along the way -- the Army doctor played by Chris Noth, Eric McCormack’s rich Pittsburgh playboy, among others -- and her homely older sister (Robin Weigert) who’s still bitter after all these years.
At the beginning, she breezes through the men and the cliches they represent as she always has. There are a lot of them, mostly forgettable, and it is here that the film threatens to lose its way.
Nick Stahl’s Bud, a Brando-esque neighbor who haunts the Pittsburgh stop, is the one you wish would be there awhile longer. But Ann moves on, and it is left to the scenes between mother and sons to provide the film’s saving grace, and for the most part they do.
As is so often the case, this road trip is as much about the journey as the final destination. Ann, who has always left the details of life to the men or the staff, has to figure out if she can be just as resourceful without them. Robbie (Mark Rendall) is her sensitive older son, always in the school play or doing needlepoint in the back seat as they drive. He is the one she knows she has to protect the most, though the word “gay” is never spoken.
Meanwhile, George, especially well-played by Lerman, is hard at work on his teenage cynicism, a copy of Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” never far from his side. He fancies himself a writer and wants only to be back in the intellectual embrace of New York with the father he thinks he knows. Lerman captures the ease with which an angry teen will use a growing vocabulary to wound a parent, with Zellweger absorbing the blows with resignation and a rueful drag on her cigarette. (George, by the way, and the film itself are loosely based on actor George Hamilton and his memories of that time in his life -- a fact the filmmakers note ever so slightly).
The 1950s suit Zellweger, as does the film. A good thing for the actress, who either slips seamlessly into the space created for her, as she did with Bridget Jones or “Chicago’s” Roxie Hart, or she shows up on the doorstep like someone who’s come to the wrong address, as was the case in “Leatherheads.” In “My One and Only,” she looks completely at home as a fading beauty in pencil skirts and pillbox hats, blood-red lipstick forever being freshened. Creating a smoke screen of class and sensuality, the actress treats the drama and desperation of Ann’s life like a wayward curl she is forever trying to tamp down.
The period turns out to be a good one for Loncraine too, having done some of his best work with well-regarded period pieces, including Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and the Winston Churchill love-in-a-time-of-war TV film, “The Gathering Storm.”
He and cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo keep subtly adjusting the styles and colors to reflect the family’s changing circumstances, from the sleek Manhattan apartment they leave behind to the increasingly down-market last resorts that become their reality.
California, bathed in light, comes as a relief for Ann and Robbie. George, on the other hand, finds the sunshine depressing -- clearly at some point that will change. “My One and Only” is a relief too: Just when you think nothing will break the summer heat, in blows a cool breeze.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: In limited release, locally at the Landmark and at Pacific Theatres at the Grove