Published on August 8th, 2014 | by MacKenzie Warner0
Is Begin Again the second coming of Once? Or a long-winded commercial for The Voice, complete with Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green’s T-rex arms?
Keira Knightley. Mark Ruffalo. Catherine Keener. None of them are bad actors and, for the most part, they have each been in some great films. So it amazes me that all three of them ended up in a lame flick that sits somewhere in romantic comedy limbo. Sadly, John Carney’s Begin Again is neither very funny nor very romantic. The potential is there, don’t get me wrong, but the film’s problems lie in the fact that it wants mass appeal while still wanting to come off as ‘indie.’ Indeed, just when you think it’s going one way, it retracts; it stagnates, and ceases to be much of anything. This makes for a boring film despite the effort of its actors.
The story is solid enough. Dan (Ruffalo) is a boozing, chain-smoking music producer who finds himself newly job-less and penniless in New York. Gretta (Knightley) is in the throes of a painful break-up after she gets dumped by her rising pop star boyfriend (Adam Levine). Deciding that she isn’t cut out for life in New York anymore, Gretta is about to book a plane ticket back to England when her friend convinces her to join him for open mic night at a bar downtown. There, we learn that Gretta is not only beautiful and heartbroken, but she can write and sing like an auto-tuned angel. Dan, who is there drinking his problems away, sees this and puts his music producer skills to the test. Call it fate; call it magic, but these two end up making a record all over New York using the city as background ambience.
The concept is sweet but is far too polished to even look or act like an indie film. It desperately attempts to come across as spontaneous and untreated, while keeping every aspect controlled and glossy enough for Hollywood. If this doesn’t make sense, listen to Gretta’s singing. While her song writing and voice try to capture the folksy-poetic style of artists like Carole King or Nora Jones (the film points this out in case you’re too stupid to get it), it lacks any realism. Her singing is expertly executed without the natural cracks, pops, or character of live singing. It’s actually Knightley’s voice, to be fair, but it’s clear that it’s been put through the production machine and polished up for the film. This defeats the purpose of the main plot. There is nothing live or spontaneous about the music. With that, the charm of the film gets stamped out.
The polished music wouldn’t be that big of a deal if the movie didn’t rely so heavily on it to carry the story. In fact, the movie plugs in about seven or eight full songs. The band backing Gretta is a collection of unemployed classically trained musicians or talented street performers. It makes sense that a music producer would have connections but Dan seemingly pulls these people out of thin air and they’re happy to make a record with perfect strangers while getting zero dollars for their work. Does that sound like New York? I’ve only been to the city once (as a child no less) but even then I didn’t get the sense that you could necessarily “depend on the kindness of strangers.”
And speaking of connections, a colleague of mine made a great point about the cast. I did not realize this at first but minor characters like Gretta’s boyfriend and Dan’s famous friend are respectively Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green. Is this a shout-out to The Voice? I remember watching these two pop on screen and thinking that the casting directors were being held hostage by some Hollywood-executive lunatic looking to cash in on the popularity of Cee Lo Green and the sex-symbol status of Adam Levine. That or the casting directors are terrible at their job. My guess is the former because casting director, Jeanne McCarthy, is responsible for great casts in many films including Zoolander, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Enough Said.
Perhaps the only credit that should be given to the casting directors is that they chose Mark Ruffalo for the part of Dan. Without him, this film would have been even more difficult to watch. Ruffalo tries to give the film some edge with his drunken swagger and “don’t-give-no-fucks” attitude. In the end, of course, he finds himself and becomes a better husband, father, and person. It could have been cheesy but Ruffalo makes the transition from loser to champion smoothly enough that it’s believable. Another bonus is that he doesn’t fall for Gretta. That would have been too predictable and too sugary-sweet. Somebody might go home with a cavity.
For a summer flick, there are worse films out there. For those that loved John Carney’s Once, you might like it because it follows a similar formula. As for its reviews, Begin Again has been getting both positive and negative feedback. For someone who openly admits to enjoying sentimental films, I am surprised to find myself in the camp of the cranky cynical reviewers. Maybe it was Adam Levine’s awful facial hair that set me off or maybe it was that I was really looking forward to enjoying a silly light-hearted film, but I left bewildered and disappointed. This film could have been so good if it was handled by a better director, casting director, music composer, and…well, everyone else involved with this film. Except for Mark Ruffalo. He’s good. We’ll keep him. Catherine Keener can come too.