Review: Begin Again
You can make the same movie twice if you’re Woody Allen, or, of course, Michael Haneke. Less famous directors know the risk going in, yet John Carney stuck to his guns in putting forth essentially a bigger-budget, A-list version of his similarly themed, very good 2007 film, Once. Once (later a hit Broadway musical) evoked the irresistible motif of a musical couple who meet cute on the streets of Dublin. In real life by the time of the film’s release, the pair were an actual musical group, The Swell Season. No danger of that here since the more seasoned of the two principles is not only an “a’ and r’” man instead of a singer, but he’s also Mark Ruffalo (excellent here).
Opposite Ruffalo’s livewire yet dissolute character, Keira Knightley is the reluctant musical debutante, Gretta. Finding herself in New York where she accompanied her pop star boyfriend (Adam Levine of Maroon 5), she is bummed out after he breaks up with her. Ready to return to London, she reluctantly lets herself get cajoled by a friend at an open mike gig to go up on stage and perform one of her songs, accompanying herself on the guitar. Dan (Ruffalo), fresh off his own bad luck, is in the audience, barely able to stand up while pounding down drinks at the bar.
We watch a terrific scene as his creative imagination fleshes out the song in a visual fantasy of his adding (all in his head) first drums, then keyboards and, finally, strings. Then he begins to convince her to record with him, pouring on his large quantities of aggressive charisma, somehow viewing his penniless state as a minor annoyance. Once he convinces Gretta to “make records” with him, they are turned down by his recently estranged record company partner (Mos Def). Dan decides to produce a demo himself and begins to recruit a killer band with help from other cronies he’s cultivated through the years. His intention: record impromptu at outdoor sites throughout New York.
Begin Again has a lot of heart. It trades every corny scene (and there are more than a few) for at least a double dose of heartwarming ones. Carney weaves in a father/daughter difficult relationship trying to find itself, and to a less successful extent, a check-in on Knightley’s ex-boyfriend as he climbs up the corporate rock ladder while watering down his sound.
Realizing good music is paramount to the film’s success, Begin Again contains sufficiently quality tunes (mostly written by Gregg Alexander) to pull this off. While the film may not contain a “Falling Slowly” (the Oscar-winner from Once), the melodies stick, and Knightley more than holds her own. More than just a pretty face, she authentically adds the right amount of edge and vulnerability to a likable yet complex character. Equally effective is a supporting role by Cee Lo Green as a filthy-rich rapper who owes all his success to Dan. Catherine Keener makes what seems like her thousandth appearance in an indy film, as Ruffalo’s ex-wife.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a better feel-good summer flick than this (only the excellent Chef comes to mind). Yet you’ll likely hold your nose at scenes like the one where Dan’s daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), a budding electric guitarist, joins in on one of the recording sessions. He hasn’t heard her play. Yet without so much as a rehearsal, she’s suddenly Jeff Beck and Robert Quine combined. Carney has a way of turning on the charm and rinsing the proceedings not just with convincing chemistry between Ruffalo and Knightly but with downright goosebump-inducing pathos. I, for one, don’t care if he makes a half dozen more of these type of movie “musicals.”