Next up on the review docket: Mike Mills’ indie slice-of-life Beginners, about a Los Angeles man (Ewan MacGregor) grappling with both the recent death of his father (Christopher Plummer) and a budding romance with a free-spirited but damaged French actress (Melanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds.) In short, Beginners is well-made and moderately diverting for most of its run, but it was also a little too self-consciously quirky for my taste. If you wait for IFC or Netflix on this one, no harm, no foul.
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.