“I just think you have let your troubles get in the way of your entire life.”
The entire time watching it I just kept thinking of Once, the 2006 film from writer / director John Carney. I went onto IMDB afterwards just for kicks, and was pleasantly surprised to find that he was at the helm with this movie as well. Begin Again is a pumped up and Americanized version of the director’s previous cult classic. It’s an inventive and toe-tapping time that doesn’t demand a lot, but still has plenty to offer. You know those movies you can watch every single time they’re on TV? The ones that are fun and make you feel good, like That Thing You Do or A Knight’s Tale (two of my go-tos)? In a cinematic culture that has become increasingly filled with blatantly dumb or unreasonably grueling movies, Begin Again is a breezy crowd-pleaser that everyone is sure to enjoy.
Opening in New York, Gretta (Keira Knightley) is pressured by her friend Steve (James Corden) into going up on stage at a bar and performing a song. In the crowd is drunken and disgraced record executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo), and he’s wowed by the intimate performance. In one of my favorite scenes this year, the intoxicated and disheveled man can’t hep but visualize and hear arrangements to the acoustic song he’s seeing performed. A piano with keys being pressed by no one, a violin with its bow flowing in mid-air. He may be drunk, but he sees the possibility to make something great. Unlucky for him he’s found somebody who doesn’t want to share her gift with the world.
Gretta works in a cafe while her cheating ex-boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) is a star musician, sometimes performing songs that she has written. Dan waits for Gretta outside the bar and manages to convince her into having a drink. What follows is a brutally honest moment where both shed their outer layers and reveal what’s brewing inside of them. Performing and sharing songs isn’t her priority…he admits that he’s drunk and says that his stupor state is, “when the magic happens.” Maybe opposites really do attract.
Carney delivers a layered story that is at times solemn and at others joyfully light. Everything revolves around Gretta and Dan. She’s just trying to find out who she is supposed to be. All the while, Dan is trying to recapture who he was…a husband to Miriam (Catherine Keener) and reliable father to Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). The movie is propelled by a mutual belief in one another. Gretta acknowledges that Dan can ignite her career and he knows that she can be the saving grace to get his back. Their plan is to record an album sans studio, performing everything out in the public and capturing the music along with the sounds of the city. It’s actually a great idea, and I love when movies like this introduce us to believable and interesting pieces of art that you wish were actually real.
The functional yet dwindling alcoholic has been done so many times. Still, Mark Ruffalo makes this a character you remember. It’s a credit to his performance and the excellent writing. He says “babe” endlessly, runs from bars with his daughter, and struggles to ever pay for his drinks. Dan is vile, but Ruffalo is so likable that you can’t hate him. Supporting performances flourish as well. Corden is great, and makes me wonder why such a good comedic actor would exit films to take over for Craig Ferguson on The Late Show. Credit to the casting director, Adam Levine is far better than you’d expect in his acting debut. It’s hard to fake a real singer and he absolutely nails the character.
Knightley makes the movie. I’ve always loved her ability to capture your attention. There’s just something about her, especially that endearing and demure smile, that reels you in with such ease. Even more impressive is the fact that she does her own singing in the film, although I’m sure a producer’s hands made her voice sound better than when recorded acoustically. Nonetheless, I was so impressed by her performance as Gretta. She makes the transition from a dependent girlfriend to a self-sufficient woman all the more realistic.
A few things didn’t really work, like Gretta and Dan’s apparent attraction for each other that is never acted upon. And forced scenes about Dan’s irresponsible drinking habits or Gretta’s influence on his daughter Violet are never fleshed out. However, those are forgiven based on the rest of the film. In Begin Again, Carney takes a unique narrative approach that goes places you don’t expect. The soundtrack sticks with you, for the most part, and you can’t help but enjoy it. It’s a simple movie about life renewed, about taking a Mulligan and trying to steer clear of the rough patches that daily life often presents us. I’ll watch it again, and again, and again. I’d recommend it to anyone.
“Things change…times change.”
Rating: 4 out of 5