Begin Again (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Begin Again (2014)

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Dan lost his job at the record label he started after an ill-advised tirade.  Gretta still hurts over her ex-boyfriend, who attained rock stardom on the wave of a song she helped write.  Are the two a perfect match, or a dreamy failure waiting to happen?  Begin Again is the spiritual follow-up to John Carney's hit 2007 film Once.

Typical moonlight conversationsJohn Carney's 2007 film Once was a blend of superb songwriting from stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova and an intimate camera that rarely moved away from the two young artists as they flirted with one another.  It was the best kind of chemistry made from a tiny budget and marred only with some of the most nauseous cinematography that made the intimate camera wobble throughout the picture.  Hansard and Irglova were not actors, but superb performers who had great chemistry together, and Carney captured their awkward flirtation so exquisitely that he ended up with a surprisingly robust hit.

Begin Again finds Carney returning to the role of screenwriter and director in what is a spiritual follow-up to Once.  Carney helped write and direct one other feature-film - 2009's Zonad with his brother - but for all intents and purposes Begin Again is the proper follow-up to Once.  One look at the poster makes this clear, with stars Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley both shooting bright smiles at one another while a guitar nestles between the two.  As charming as the image is, it bears the uncomfortable subtext that this film is going to be more of the same, and Begin Again spends the next ninety-five minutes proving my hunch correct.

Carney's Begin Again is not a failure, just underwhelming.  After the carefree Once it's unfair to expect that he would be able to replicate the alchemy that made his earlier success so refreshing.  But what I did not expect him to do is take the basic plot of Once, remove almost everything that made it unique,  and place stock ingredients that have been around almost as long as storytelling.

Begin Again's performances start off with lovely touches, like the self-playing instruments here, then devolves into a straightforward concert presentation.

Begin Again's performances start with lovely touches, like the self-playing instruments here, then devolves into a straightforward concert presentation.

Since much of Begin Again lives or dies based on the leads, it's lucky for Carney that he secured arguably the two most charming performers in Hollywood.  Ruffalo owes his career to his ability to make similar rugged, down-on-their-luck charmers feel fresh with every film and he does so once more with Begin Again.  There's more of a hard edge to his character, Dan, this time around and he always seems one drink removed from losing his temper.  Knightley is similarly blessed with charm, but does better with a more complicated role that allows her room for her intelligence and resilience to sparkle even after she's been dumped.

One of the blessings of Carney's script is that the two of them don't completely fall into clichés thanks to some nice twists in the archetypes of the drunk genius and the jilted lover.  Those blessings are minor though when we spend so much time in those stock characters before we get to the twist that makes them different.  Ruffalo's role, in particular, is riddled with redundant character traits that we've seen many times before of the once-genius who has become an alcoholic and lost the spark.  Knightley's character benefits from a less worn path but ends on a reductive note as her moment of triumph is based on a man getting what he wants from her - the same thing that sent her into a shame spiral to begin with.

The demerits of the script pile up when multiple superb performers get saddled with one-note characters.  Hailee Steinfeld is great as Ruffalo's daughter but it doesn't change that she's just another mopey teenager who learns to love her dad.  We even get to revisit the great tension between Ruffalo and Catherine Keener, who plays his ex-wife, but it fizzles out as she is written as a nagging and constantly dissatisfied woman.  The worst is Mos Def, a man who can be great in the right roles, but is essentially saddled off to the side to nod respectfully and sometimes frown as Ruffalo's character launches into a flat recreation of Tom Cruise's big quitting scene from Jerry Maguire.

Individual moments, like this hug filmed in long-shot, filled me with glee.

Individual moments, like this hug filmed in long-shot, filled me with glee.

Since Begin Again is the follow-up to Once I had hopes that the music would be memorable.  The tunes are by Gregg Alexander, whose greatest hit (and good philosophy) is still catchy decades later, and has written plenty of solid and award-winning songs in the meantime.  But I write this barely a day after watching Begin Again and none of the songs left any sort of impression on my memory.  Part of this is intentional as a subplot with Adam Levine (who I hope does more acting based on his great work here) that deals with him "selling out" and killing the soul of an acoustic song.  Yet I can't even remember the basic melody of the intimate numbers - the ones supposedly so powerful the set comes alive and we witness the magic of musical creation.

Which involves one of the ways that Begin Again is both an improvement on and dry replication of Once's success.  The cinematography from Yaron Orbach is much better and the camera is steady enough to avoid that feeling of perpetual sea-sickness that Once had.  Some moments feel magical in the way that the lights come streaming in and musical instruments start playing on their own.  Orbach also has a great eye for varying displays of intimacy, as the most heartfelt shot of the film is also at the longest distance so that we can see how much of an effort Knightley's character has to go through for a simple hug.  Begin Again just loses that magic as it goes on, trading those magical early moments for what amounts to a decently shot concert film.

Begin Again has already been enough of a success to secure Carney's next film, whatever he decides that to be.  I love that there's still someone in the world who embraces love of music and its transformational power so nakedly and gets the help of people who feel the same.   Passion doesn't yield results though, and Begin Again feels old hat when the title implies something new.

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Tail - Begin AgainBegin Again (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by John Carney.
Starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo.

Posted by Andrew

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