A heartfelt mess, Americana road movie “My Own Love Song” marches to its own tune but never really finds its rhythm. This first English-language effort from writer-director Olivier Dahan (“La Vie en Rose”) is both a magical-realist drama and a paean to the good ol’ South, yet it’s also too far-fetched and whimsical to feel like anything more than make-believe. Add to that a singing Renee Zellweger, a stuttering Forest Whitaker, a bluesy soundtrack by Bob Dylan plus some gorgeous location photography, and you get an offbeat “Song” that won’t top the charts but should reach scattered listeners beyond France.
Awkward as the pic feels, one can’t deny Dahan’s sincerity in trying to capture a certain (albeit often naive) image of life as it’s lived west of the Mississippi. And since subtlety has never been the helmer’s forte, he has no trouble rolling out the big guns here: fireworks blazing across a starry sky, giant animated birds hopping through New Orleans’ Sixth Ward, an f/x-heavy retelling of Robert Johnson’s pact with the devil, and documentary sequences that depict faces and places on the road from Kansas City to Baton Rouge.
How a plot gets inserted into all this is another matter, and while the pic certainly benefits from excellent production values — topped by crisp, sun-coated lensing by Matthew Libatique (“Iron Man,” “The Fountain”) — the story feels like a forced, all-too-cute fable about friendship and family that’s never as emotional as it should be.
Things get off to a rocky start when we first meet Jane Wyatt (Zellweger), a folksinger who hung up her guitar for good after a car accident killed her husband, left her paralyzed and put her son in the hands of foster parents. If that doesn’t sound heavy enough, meet her buddy Joey (Whitaker), a babbling survivor of a fire that left his family dead and traumatized him to the point that he believes he can talk to angels.
After 20 difficult minutes with these two — and several cringe-worthy exchanges (“You hide from the world ’cause you have two wheels instead of legs!”) — the pace picks up somewhat when they decide to drive, then bus and hitchhike, to Louisiana for reasons not all known.
On the way, they encounter a handful of madcap Southern folk, including a shyster car salesman (Elias Koteas) whose surprising pickup line (“Everybody needs to have their tank filled”) may rank among the world’s trashiest, and a blues-crazy criminal (Nick Nolte) who accompanies Jane in a moving rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” They also join forces with Billie (Madeline Zima, “Californication”), a young woman whose husband has run out on her for no clear reason.
None of these characters could be construed as actual people, and Dahan’s biggest mistake is in not making them more believable, or at least collaborating with a writer who could have added a second dimension to the narrative. Without any real sophistication, the drama plays out like Disney for adults, and efforts to pile on the pathos in the final reels are not enough to round things out.
What’s missing in content is partially saved by the visuals and sound work, and a forceful performance by Zellweger that resonates beyond the feebleness of the dialogue. Two sequences in which she sings are noteworthy for both the strength of her voice and the way Dahan (who’s no stranger to filming musical numbers) keeps the camera fixated on her throughout. Whitaker, however, seems too caught up in channeling the crazed Joey, who’s initially charming but grows tiresome awfully fast.
Music by Dylan (sounding more and more like Tom Waits) includes songs from his 2009 album “Together Through Life.”