In the trailer bin of late:
Walking out of the theater after Beginners, the film that most sprung to mind was Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. So I was surprised to discover soon thereafter that July and Mills are actually married. (It’s a good match — they definitely share a worldview.) Here, as in Me and You, Beginners is occasionally charming and soulful in its off-kilter way. But it also too often flirts dangerously with twee to feel really resonant. At least for me, the story would have more power if the characers — particularly its two lovebirds — were less affected.
The more interesting and successful part of Beginners involves the main character — Oliver — remembering his recently deceased father Hal, and the way Hal, after the death of his wife, consciously reinvented his life to be happy. After forty-four years of marriage, he comes out, finds a boyfriend (ER’s Goran Visnjic) and a new social circle, gets active in politics and gay liberation, and takes on new hobbies like house music, movie nights and lighting fireworks. And even when Hal is ultimately diagnosed with terminal cancer, he chooses to maintain his late-in-life joie de vivre. Because for Hal, quite frankly, life’s too short not to be happy.
By contrast, Oliver-in-the-present is paralyzed — with loneliness and self-doubt, with the weight of carrying other people’s problems, with the burden of, as he puts it, historical consciousness, and, with well, general sadness. He can’t break out of his funk and be happy, even when happiness — in the form of Melanie Laurent’s Anna — is staring him in the face. The grief over Hal’s demise is debilitating enough, but in fact Oliver’s such a sensitive soul that he can’t even bring himself to leave his dad’s Jack Russell, Arthur (who “speaks” in subtitles and more often then not steals his scenes), alone at home. Can Oliver find a way to overcome his emotional obstacles, take a page from his father (and free-wheeling mom (Mary Page Keller), whom we meet in flashback), and grab the reins of his life? Let’s hope so. Neither love nor pixieish yet similarly depressive significant others tend to come round every day.
This relationship side is where Beginners started to rankle. MacGregor and Laurent make for a cute couple (and Ewan’s been working on his American accent — he sounds much better than usual.) But, even allowing for the traditional meet-cute (in this case, at a costume party — he’s Sigmund Freud, she’s a mute Charlie Chaplin), far too many of their interactions together are based on outright quirkiness. When they get in the car, she points, and he drives wherever she has bidden. When they get back to her place, they keep up the “she’s a mute” pretense long after it would have gotten annoying. When the phone rings, they pretend to be each other so we can have portentous revelations about her father (a suicidal depressive, in keeping with the happy/sad theme here.)
Perhaps we’re supposed to take from all this that these are two rare and beautiful flowers who are lucky to have found each other, or that they are both such damaged souls that they can only relate to each other through these distancing mechanisms. But, to me, all of this self-conscious artifice in their dealings just made these two characters seem overdrawn and fake. (At the very least, being these two seems like it’d be exhausting.) The same goes for Oliver’s occasional voice-overs, when, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, he notes the different times he’s discussing with establishing pictures of ex-presidents and shots from LIFE magazine and such. It’s all very pretty, but what do these vignettes have to do with the rest of the tale being told? They feel like an art exercise rather than something emerging organically from the film.
In short, when dwelling on the father-son story, Beginners occasionally finds a few moments of quiet emotional truth. But I found the love story and framing devices here too crufted over with bric-a-brac to be as engaging. So, one part good, one part not-so-good — Fortunately, for Beginners, tie goes to the talking dog.
Much like Manhattan, this film begins with a love letter, in the form of a languid montage, to its setting. While (naturally) a jazz ditty plays, we spend the first five minutes or so of the film ambling through the streets, parks, and cafes of the City of Lights, soaking up the Parisian ambience. (This is one of the many reasons I could see Midnight In Paris making a great double bill with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, which opened similarly.) As it happens, wandering aimlessly around this city is a favorite hobby of our protagonist, Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter looking to find inspiration for his first novel in the old corners of gay Paree. Unfortunately, his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) doesn’t share this proclivity: She prefers cabs, shopping, and expensive jewelry. (If that doesn’t tell you what to expect from her character, her tea party parents — Kurt Fuller and In the Loop‘s Mimi Kennedy — should close the deal.)
And so it is that one night, while Inez is out dancing with a know-it-all acquaintance (Michael Sheen), Gil happens to hitch a ride in a vintage automobile and finds himself at what appears to be a costume party. The thing is, the guy on the piano (Yyves Heck) looks exactly like Cole Porter, the couple he falls in with — the Fitzgeralds of New York — just happen to be called Scott (Tom “Loki” Hiddleston) and Zelda (Allison Pill), and the gruff guy at the coffee shop (Corey Stoll) they take him to is the spitting image, in word and deed, of Ernest Hemingway. Apparently in Paris, the past isn’t even past… or at least once it’s past midnight.
So, yes, somehow the Lost Generation has been found, and soon enough Gil is relishing the movable feast: He’s getting book tips from Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), talking rhinos with Dali (Adrien Brody), running movie ideas by Bunuel (Adrien de Van), and falling in love with one of Picasso’s muses, the lovely Adrianna (Marion Cotillard). All the while, Gil begins to ignore his “real” life in the 21st century as too humdrum and mundane. After all, how you gonna keep Gil on the screenwriting farm after he’s seen Gay Paree? But, if the 21st century isn’t good enough for Gil, why should those madcap 1920’s be good enough for Adrianna? Nostalgia infects us no matter what our time, and so we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past…
As Allen’s fans have already figured out by the second reel, Woody is repeating himself here somewhat. (After a career as long and prolific as his, it’s to be expected!) Replace nostalgia with love of the cinema, and Gil’s time-traveling to the era he idolizes isn’t too far afield from Mia Farrow’s romance with matinee idol Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo. (For that matter, everything involving Michael Sheen’s pompous academic is set-up for another variation of the Marshall McLuhan joke from Annie Hall.) And Allen has always been one for high-culture namedropping in his writing and films. It’s just that this time, the likes of T.S. Eliot, Man Ray, Josephine Baker, and Alice B. Toklas are actual cameos rather than just allusions.
So, yes, Allen may have trod this ground before, but Midnight in Paris nonetheless works, for several reasons. For one, Owen Wilson — an actor I’ve never really felt one way or the other about — is one of the best Allen analogues to come down the pike in awhile. He manages to capture Woody’s usual collection of neuroses while coming across as more charming and self-effacing then Allen really can anymore. For another, the movie doesn’t aspire to deep philosophical truths about relationships and/or the meaning of life (like, say, the existentialism pervading Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors). It has some insightful things to say about the nature of nostalgia, and otherwise just aims to show us a good time. As they say in the closest thing we’ve got to Paris stateside, NYC notwithstanding, laissez les bons temps rouler.
They’ve walked away, but not in silence: The Guardian‘s Rob Fitzpatrick checks in on the unfortunate demise of New Order. “There’s no future for New Order. It’s hard to draw a line under everything, but I think we have.”
Update: If you have a hankering to see these dwarves in action, PJ has released another fun production video, below.
For now, I’m keeping with my plan to not read ahead of the show, so the only characters I’m even a little familiar with are Stannis and Margaery, and that’s only via foreshadowing in the first book. But I’m willing to bet Dillane is a great fit, just because, as far as I’ve seen, Dillane is a great fit in just about anything.