“Begin Again” has recycled but beguiling charm, led by the amazing Mark Ruffalo
I've never seen director James Carney’s film “Once”, nor have I seen the musical based on it. This, apparently, is a plus for those interested in seeing his current film, “Begin Again,” since a lot of its negative criticism has been centered on its being too much like the first movie—only with movie stars.
“Once” may well be a wonderful film, but “Begin Again” also has considerable charm, and that is coming from someone who doesn’t like either Keira Knightley or Adam Levine, who are both in this movie.
But let’s start at the beginning. “Begin Again” tells a slightly off-kilter version of the old “A Star Is Born” story: young, talented artiste meets older, jaded has-been to the at least temporary benefit of both. In this case, the artiste is a singer/songwriter, Gretta, (Knightley) and the has-been is a record company exec who’s backed a long string of losers and is now being booted from the company he co-founded. That is Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo, who can do no wrong as an actor as far as I am concerned and is the reason I saw the film in the first place.
Gretta has come to New York with her singer boyfriend Dave (Levine), who is headed for rock stardom based on the gushing reception to a track of his that made it into (a little too-obvious irony here) a movie. No surprise when his rising fame also causes his asshole quotient to rocket and Gretta moves out, holing up with a fellow Brit pal, Steve (James Corden), who’s been busking on the streets. Steve convinces her to come with him to an open mic night, where Dan, who’s wandered in in search of an extra-large bourbon, sees and hears her and is enchanted by what might be.
If this is already causing you to shake your head, don’t bother with the film. If, on the other hand, you’re interested to see what a talented director can do with what is admittedly not daisy-fresh material, read on.
Strong performances are what make “Begin Again”. Knightley uses her own singing voice, and holds her own in that small, breathy, indie way. (The songs themselves, it has been extensively pointed out, are nothing to write home about, but in my non-singer/songwriter view, are adequate for the story.) I am very bored with what by now are the standard Knightley facial expressions: the sideways smile, the widened eyes—but she gives those enough of a miss, especially in her scenes with Ruffalo, that it works.
Levine surprised me. He does not overact…much…and especially in the first, relationship-establishing scene with Gretta, has a rather endearing, natural quality.
James Corden, an actor I was not familiar with before this movie, is delightful as Steve, who’s drawn into Gretta’s widening prospects and just goes for it. The scene in which a tipsy Steve encourages an equally tipsy Gretta to write a revenge song on the spot and then sing it onto Dave’s phone messages has an improvised, irresistible feel.
The always-solid Catherine Keener plays Dan’s estranged wife, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays their daughter, managing to avoid almost all of the sullen teen clichés and emerge as an actor to watch.
But Mark Ruffalo. I mean, c’mon, folks, this is one of the best actors working today, and he takes a character played a thousand times and makes you care about him and root for him even as all his self-centered flaws are on full view.
Dan must have something inside, since former-discovery-now-star Troublegum (Cee Lo Green) is still loyal and still willing to back a man who has nothing he wants anymore.
The other star of this film is New York itself, photographed like the grand old dame she is.
“Begin Again” is the kind of small movie that will lure you in, if you let it. If not, it’s summer, and the blockbusters are thundering right next door.