by Patrick Bromley
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.
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.
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.
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.