Begin Again is a film with considerable flaws and strengths. The later include stellar performances by Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, and Hailee Steinfeld.
By Paul Dervis
When Begin Again (at the Kendall Square Cinema) soars the credit goes to writer/director Jon Carney (Once). And when it crashes and burns Carney must also take the blame. The director creates nuanced plot twists and turns, but he lacks the confidence to let his story and visuals stand on their own. He sets up significant moments, but then more often than not spoils his finely tuned work by having the characters explain to the audience what they just saw. But more about that later.
Begin Again tells the story of a singer/songwriter team coming to New York to sign a major label contract after one of their songs became a hit on the soundtrack of a movie. The duo, Greta (Keira Knightley) and David (played by singer Adam Levine in his film debut), are a couple as well as a team. The record label is only interested in him, so Greta becomes relegated to mere ‘girlfriend’ status, which in that world is seen as a very temporary position.
Initially, David’s voice and Greta’s lyrics are extremely folk, but David leaves her in New York and records an album in California that is more pop than folk, much to Greta’s consternation. Oh, yes, and he starts up a tryst on the West Coast with one of his producers. Devastated, Greta decides to return to England. On the night before her flight home, she is at an ‘Open Mic’ at a folk club, plays one song, and fails miserably to win over the audience.
In a completely different yet parallel plot line, we are introduced to Dan, a forty-something failed record executive. Dan lives in a crappy, tiny apartment in a seedy section of Manhattan and drives a beautiful but beat up ’60s Jaguar that was clearly bought during his long gone heyday. Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo, has an ex, (Catherine Keener) and a 14 year-old daughter whose age he can not recall. It isn’t that he doesn’t love her enough to remember…it is that he has become a raging alcoholic. Dan is just about to lose the record company he started and made into a success. The guy hasn’t brought in a winning artist in a decade and his partner is fed up.
Drunk, Dan walks into the folk club just as Greta is about to sing. Dan doesn’t hear how she sounds, he hears how she could sound….with a piano, bass and drum background. Dan is a visionary, and his imagination inspires the strongest image in Begin Again. As we hear Greta singing (Carney showed the same failed scene earlier in the film), a bow animates and starts to play the bass; drumsticks start to beat the drums; and a phantom keyboard joins in. We get to hear her song in a completely different way.
And then, 15 minutes later, Dan tells us that he has the ability to hear how songs should be performed, ruining the power of the previous moment. And it will happen again.
But, to Carney’s credit, he gives us a love story unlike those we we are accustomed to. Virtually nothing goes as stereotype would prescribe, with the exception of the arrival of Greta’s recording, and even that receives a plot twist at the end.
Oddly, the performances in this film are divided right down the middle. Knightley and Levine are pretty well one-dimensional, the former playing each of her scenes with the same angst. Levine has that nice guy thing down pat, but the moments he is supposed to be a bastard ring false. He is too novice an actor for such a large role.
On the other hand, Ruffalo and Keener, as they have shown time and time again, are intense and complicated performers who often generate more resonance out of their roles and dialogue than the script offers on the surface. In Begin Again, it is clear that they are two lost souls, and that they feel for each other in ways that they can never express verbally. In one scene, Dan is over at his ex’s house to shower and he invites her in with him. She has the predictable disdain for his invite, but as Keener leaves the bathroom she takes a glance back at the tub and expresses the character’s ambivalence with subtlety.
Even more compelling is Ruffalo’s relationship with his daughter, played by Hailee Steinfeld. The love Dan feels for his child, and the pain he feels because of her absence from his life, is communicated with the kind of truth that will resonate with the many, many men who are living the experience.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for hs work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.