JOY RIDE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With any luck, "My One and Only" will draw the same crowds that have made "Julie & Julia" a holdover hit. It's affable entertainment - a road movie with a smart map and characters who are unpredictable human beings, not just billboard attractions.

Charlie Peters wrote the charming script with a choice female protagonist. When Ann Devereaux (Renee Zellweger) leaves her boyishly charismatic, unfaithful husband, Dan (Kevin Bacon), a high-society bandleader, in Manhattan and takes her two teenage sons, George (Logan Lerman) and Robbie (Mark Rendall), on a nationwide search for a new spouse, she ultimately lands them on the closest thing America had to the Yellow Brick Road in 1953 - Route 66 - with Hollywood as the final destination. Maryland stands in for New York, Boston, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

The movie doesn't inflate Ann's heroine status beyond being a first-class, cockeyed optimist. But Zellweger turns her into a unique creation. She's an upscale, Eisenhower-era cousin to the bohemian, never-say-die schoolteacher Sally Hawkins played in "Happy-Go-Lucky."

As Ann, a Southern belle with just a few mild dings in her, Zellweger finds the meaning in the old phrase "gracious living." She uses her everyday polish and flirtatious manner to bring out what's attractive in everyone around her, her boys included. With modulated zing, Zellweger masters the inflections of civilized flattery and the external signals of desire or repulsion. She allows you to savor Ann's fleeting triumphs as well as lament her miseries. Rendall brings theatrical aplomb to Robbie, her oldest son, an aspiring actor with a talent for embroidery, who provides a sardonic Greek chorus to this all-American trip. And Lerman does the full range of budding-manly emotions to a T as George, an aspiring writer with his heart set on composing the next "Catcher in the Rye."

What's most appealing about "My One and Only" is that it's decent and full of emotion without being sappy or dopey. In one of many swift, telling interchanges during the Devereauxs' prolonged stop in Pittsburgh, George manages to slake his curiosity about the female anatomy while also bucking up the self-worth of a teenage girl named Paula (Molly C. Quinn). George doesn't exploit Paula, or his mother, but he doesn't give in to them, either. He never loses sight of Ann's shortcomings; he knows that she hasn't taken his measure as a person. But when Dan, a terrible father, says Ann is just as bad a mother, George has the wisdom to say, "At least she tries." At moments like that, Peters uses simple language to nail complex experience. And Bacon matches Lerman's surprisingly rugged honesty with humorous rue. In this pivotal role, Bacon makes every nanosecond count.

What the director, Richard Loncraine, brings to the show is an empathetic professionalism, refreshing in its respect for the audience. A less savvy director might have rammed home the notion that for women like Devereaux in the 1950s, finding a new husband was the prescribed route for a second chance in life. Instead, Loncraine conveys that tenet wittily. He re-creates the recent past with a glossy-yet-chipped atmosphere and a cavalcade of deft supporting male characterizations, such as the James Dean-like Nick Stahl as a poetic grease monkey and David Koechner as a paint-store owner with an offbeat insight into what makes women different from men. (It's their temperature: He advises George always to bring an extra sweater or jacket along on a date.)

Chris Noth is a lot more inventive as a Cold War military man than he was as Mr. Big in the "Sex and the City" movie. At crucial points, his face goes blank, and his shoulders slump and then go square. He lets us see how he reboots his mind when Ann demands that he behave like a gentleman rather than a feral alpha male. Cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo, son of "Battle of Algiers" director Gillo Pontecorvo, photographs them all with amused tenderness.

This film is a minor symphony of skillfully filtered flesh tones. When George complains about the California sun, it's a hilarious in-joke; most people will go in knowing that George Devereaux grows up to be the ever-tan George Hamilton. But "My One and Only" transcends movie-star fluff. In an age when most films aspire to heat and then flame out, it achieves an enduring and endearing warmth.

No screening

"Gamer," in which a star player in a fight-to-the-death online game looks to regain his independence while taking down the game's mastermind, was not screened for critics.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language)

Running time: 1:49

Starring Renee Zellweger (Ann Devereaux), Kevin Bacon (Dan Devereaux), Logan Lerman (George Devereaux), Mark Rendall (Robbie Devereaux) and Chris Noth (Harlan Williams)

A FreeStyle release. Directed by: Richard Loncraine

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