Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: Begin Again

by Patrick Bromley
Can a song save your life?

There is a scene two thirds of the way through Begin Again, writer/director John Carney's follow-up to 2007's Once, in which Greta, an aspiring singer played by Keira Knightley, hears the album version of a song she wrote for her boyfriend (Adam Levine of Maroon 5). The song, conceived as a delicate little ballad, has been dressed up and overblown to the point of being almost unrecognizable. It got lost in all the studio production, she says.

That piece of dialogue pretty well summarizes Begin Again. It's Carney's attempt to recreate the delicate specialness of Once with a bigger budget, a slicker feel and a movie star cast, but what once worked for him has been lost in the production. It's another story about aspiring musicians and the way that music connects us and speaks feelings when words won't suffice (it was originally called Can a Song Save Your Life?, in case you were wondering just how much weight the film affords music). But it plays like a studio remake of Once, retaining some of the ideas and the heart but bogging them down with clumsy filmmaking and bad choices.
Knightley's Greta is a would-be songwriter transplanted to New York when her musician boyfriend's (Levine) career takes off. He's being courted by execs, women are throwing themselves at him and in hardly any time at all Greta finds herself single and homesick. She's ready to pack it in and return to London when a friend talks her into a performing at an open mic; it's there that she catches the attention of Dan, a down-on-his-luck record company exec who's separated from his wife (Catherine Keener, continuing her career of professional ex), estranged from his child (Hailee Steinfeld), living in a bottle and recently fired. Dan immediately sees something in Greta (in a sequence I have yet to make up my mind about -- it's cute, but maybe too much so) and wants to sign her. Greta, being a PRINCIPLED ARTIST, isn't interested in any kind of commercial success. She doesn't want to sell an image, doesn't want to be packaged or have her songs put on soundtracks. She's just in it for the love of writing songs that apparently no one will hear.

So Dan and Greta come up with a plan: instead of recording a demo and shopping it around, they'll just record a full album at different outdoor locations all around the city. It's a charming idea, and the sequences that focus on those recording sessions are among the best in the movie. It recalls what was great about Once -- the experience of creating music in the moment and the way it connects us in ways words can't. When not focusing on the musical performances, the movie bounces around from relationship to relationship without ever bothering to understand any of them. There are brief flashes of insight, like a scene in which Ruffalo and Knightley confuse the closeness of their creative relationship for attraction, or one in which Levine offers to leave his stardom behind, unprepared to have his bluff called (his response is cannily evasive). For the most part, Carney's script settles for emotional shortcuts and familiar tropes to navigate his way. It is a movie essentially without villains, true, and that's ok. But it's also largely devoid of conflict. The music business is not easy. Heartbreak is not easy. Divorce is not easy. Alcoholism is not easy. Begin Again simplifies it all so that everything can work out for the characters. Carney so badly wants a happy ending for everyone that he's not willing to put in the work to get there. It's dishonest.
The heavy lifting of the movie is done by Ruffalo and Knightley, who are both likable and warm and do their best to create actual people in a movie that sometimes forgets what real people are like. Ruffalo is in his element playing a charming fuckup, but it's Knightley who's the nice surprise. She's an actress I forget how much I like until I see her in stuff. Greta isn't much of a character on the page -- she's principled and talented and heartbroken -- but Knightley makes her come alive in a couple of standout scenes. Her eyes and her face show depths the film is not prepared to acknowledge, so you end up with a performance that's richer and better than the material.

While she's not quite ready to become a full-time singer, Knightley's voice is pleasant enough and well-suited to the material written for her  (though one of the disadvantages this movie has over Once is that here none of the performances are live or immediate; everything is pre-recorded and produced). The music is good -- it's the kind of soundtrack you'll want to buy after leaving the theater. Again, though, there's a difference between these songs and the ones in Once; those were earnestly written by professional musicians as part of their catalog, whereas the songs in Begin Again were written (mostly by former New Radicals frontman/hired gun Gregg Alexander) to sound like hits. It's another approximation of something authentic.
Sincerity is a hard thing to pull off. We live in cynical times ( - Jerry Maguire, F This Movie!), and for a filmmaker to lay him or herself bare with optimism can lead to massive rejection -- for proof, look no further than the nakedly sincere and big-hearted Cloud Atlas. I sometimes have to remind myself not to be a cynical bastard at the movies and appreciate a film that is openly optimistic and hopeful and which wants to express big feelings. Begin Again does all that, but it's not enough. My problems with the movie are not that it is too sincere, but rather that it's a deeply flawed movie despite its sincerity.

Begin Again genuinely means well. Carney has passionate feelings about the power of music and good intentions about what it should mean to people -- so much so that he usually just has his characters articulate those exact thoughts in obvious lines of dialogue. But it's also a movie trying to find itself. There are honest moments and good performances in there, but they get buried by sentimentality, messy storytelling and phony Hollywood beats. It ends up stuck between two worlds, a little stronger than the average studio picture but worse than the focused indie it wants to be. It's a mediocre cover version of a much better song.

11 comments:

  1. I agree with most of your comments but feel a bit more positively overall. (I did not see Once, though). The lead performances by Knightley and Ruffalo were charming and I enjoyed the film as a story of emotional recovery aided by mutual support/belief in one another's talent. The scenes and dialog relaying the film-maker's views on authenticity in the record industry were less interesting and a bit heavy-handed.

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  2. Great review even if I disagree. I had major problems with Once but really liked Begin Again.

    I do want to call out something I feel is weird though and that's what's happening with Hailee Steinfeld. I've seen her in 3 movies this year where she plays the same part - - the daughter of an absentee father who dresses slutty etc. She needs to get a better agent.

    Also when did Catherine Keener decide she was only going to play THE WORST?

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  3. Adam, what aspects of the movie worked especially well for you? I thought it was at its best when focusing on the arcs of the two main characters and their support for one another. The music was enjoyable, too.

    My biggest issue was that the plot touched on too many themes: infidelity, raising a teenage daughter, connecting with people through music, staying relevant as we get older, evolution of the music industry, artist versus the record label, songwriter versus performer, raw performance versus slick production, the effects of fame... There were so many topics that few were explored in depth. Patrick raises a good point regarding the excessive use of shortcuts because several themes were represented by placeholders instead of exploration. In some cases the movie offered good insights, but these nuggets were delivered via one line of dialog that was never revisited.

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    1. I got caught up in the story of Knightley and Ruffalo making the album. I thought she elevated the whole movie. There was a lot of shortcuts and too much happening, perhaps, but none of that bothered me in the experience of watching the movie. So I can't really say other than subjectively, I was really involved in the movie.

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  4. Me, too. Kinda wanted to give her character a big hug.

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  5. I bought the soundtrack. I like all of her songs except when the kids sing. That part bothers me. It would have been funnier if in the movie Ruffalo excused them because they couldn't sing like little angels.

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    1. I didn't necessarily mind the kids singing because the song was good and the scene was ok, but it's symptomatic of a lot of what's wrong with the movie. The scene you wanted would have meant conflict -- something not working out exactly right for the characters. This movie isn't interested in that. Shortcuts.

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  6. This is an awful guitar-player nitpick but is Keira supposed to be playing guitar for the first time in that screencap or does she have some sort of mental deficiency that forces her to really have to concentrate on playing one of guitar's easiest chords? It's just such a perfect "this is what playing guitar looks like" pose, I'm annoyed already.

    That nitpick touches one of the big problems of making movies about making music (I haven't seen Inside Llewyn Davis yet because I'm a terrible person so hopefully that's an exception) - it's very hard to portray the spontaneity of creativity - you know that's what it's trying to do but it feels contrived - because it is! And unless it's made very clear, you're sometimes left wondering, "Is this supposed to be a good song? A bad song? A song that sounds good but is just hackneyed fluff?" Sounds like this might get that right at least.

    I rolled my eyes when I first saw the preview for this - from your review it would appear that was half-warranted, but you've given me enough positives that I'll probably check it out at some point. Not before Inside Llewyn Davis though!

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  7. FWIW, during a flashback she plays the piano while her partner/boyfriend plays the guitar. It's possible she's just not very good on the guitar.

    Your point regarding creativity is valid. This movie tends to depict performance rather than songwriting, and her character is a reluctant performer.

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  8. Caught a matinee of "Begin Again" Wednesday afternoon. I'll be the first to admit I have no taste whatsoever in popular music, so I can't judge whether any of the songs in the movie that are meant to be soulful and beautiful are such, or if the sell-out and butchered-for-commercial-appeal songs (basically most of what we hear Adam Levine perform) are as awful as we're led to believe. What I know is that, as he did eight years ago with "Once," writer/director John Carney won my musically-illiterate heart over completely the moment a drunk Mark Ruffalo could see/hear the back-up arrangements for the song Keira Knightley is dragged to perform on stage in a nightclub (which looks identical to the one in "Obvious Child"). Even though the movie is about both of them (and, indirectly, their separated exes) Keira's Greta is the movie's secret weapon, a manic pixie girl of sorts but one with a set of personal values, musical thresholds and aura of perfection that makes her simultaneously relatable but also idealized. Greta is a recognizable cliché of rags-to-riches showbiz movies, but the way Knightley plays her and how Carney zigs/zags when we expect her to do the opposite felt genuine to me, particularly since I know people like this in real life (see below).

    After a couple of early flashback scenes that actually work as character development for our two leads and their co-stars (particularly Mos Def, Catherine Keener and the aforementioned Adam Levine; the less said about the annoying James Corben the better) we're off and running in a completely unreal and unbelievable fantasy about being a musician in love with making music recording an album in NYC over a long summer along with your friends and family. And even though I could call bullshit on how much "Begin Again" is shamelessly manipulative and trite (of which I was intimately aware as it unfolded) while basically doing a mainstream-friendly rehash of themes and characterizations done so much better and smartly in "Inside Llewyn Davis", I genuinely enjoyed what Carney and his characters have to say and show about their crazy summer. Ruffalo and Knightley walking through Times Square overnight (a route I often take on my way back from work) listening to each other's playlist, Greta leaving a musical message for her ex, Miriam smiling when her ex is taking a shower in her bathroom... just one killer small scene after another add-up to a pleasant live-action fantasy that also happens to be a great little slice-of-life NYC movie.

    Gotta say, though, I can't deny that part of why "Begin Again" feels so genuinely affecting to me is that I know and work with someone that is basically the personification of the Keira Knightley character. Like Greta, this co-worker is also into her music not for money or fame, but for the genuine love of music that she gives away for free (unless you care to donate some $$$ if you feel like it) or performs in public places or clubs that me and other co-workers go to see to show our support for her art. It's one thing when a movie like "Begin Again" shows us a well-meaning fantasy about idealized characters that seem far-fetched. It's another thing entirely when you go to a movie and witness an idealized version of someone you see and/or talk to everyday. :-)

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  9. Not sure if it's blockbuster counter-programming or an F!-you to Snowpiercer, but Begin Again is currently playing in 1300 theaters and grossed $9.4 million domestically according to Box Office Mojo.

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