Release: Friday, June 27, 2014 (limited)
A disgraced record label executive has a chance run-in with a down-on-her-luck musician at a bar and the two forge a friendship that inspires more than great music — it reinvigorates one another’s thirst for life.
The Hulk takes a chill pill as Mark Ruffalo fits himself back into a decidedly more human outfit in John Carney’s musical romantic-comedy Begin Again. Instead of wreaking havoc on everything around him in a physical manner, Dan’s going about the same by butting heads with top execs at the label he started up years ago. His idealistic approach to talent management and discovery is viewed as a product of a bygone era in this company and it puts him at odds with the future of the label. His life quickly unravels.
The film’s secondary focus is Keira Knightley’s emotionally fragile yet three-dimensional Gretta, a guitarist from England whose longtime boyfriend is finding massive popularity in America, particularly in Los Angeles. Begin Again spends much of its second act detailing the spiraling downward of this at-once mesmeric and repulsively stagnant relationship between two musicians struggling to find themselves. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine juggles being Knightley’s heart throb and heart ache impressively as Dave, a man whose artistic integrity as well as devotion to Gretta slowly disintegrates as his star brightens.
Gretta, on the other hand, refuses to bend in the wind. Her firm grasp on her own creative control rings more authentic than manipulative; the choice more a microcosm of an entire population of aspiring artists or even successful ones who have remained true to their roots. So it’s no surprise when she becomes embroiled in drunken conversation with a man who claims to be a formerly successful record producer (yeah, this Dan guy) that we can almost feel it as the stranger smacks straight into the brick wall that is Gretta’s defense mechanism in the face of this awkward business proposition. She claims she is no performer; rather, she creates music at will.
Despite her biting tone, her discomfort seems to stem less from Dan’s crash-landing in her life as it does from being in the present moment. Her very existence here in this spot is the problem. Owed mostly to the ingenuity of the way Carney has constructed this tale, her backstory is explained and introduced in a wholly satisfying way, one that provides the bar scene a greater depth that’s often missing in these ‘when boy-meets-girl’ encounters.
Along with a pair of wonderful lead performances (Ruffalo and Knightley share the kind of chemistry that’s seemingly only developed over many a season of working together) Begin Again also distinguishes itself by not settling for the typical rom-com story arc. It certainly follows structure, but whereas most tend to fail as far as providing surprises is concerned, this little slice of life as a musician in the big city has some wiggle room in terms of deviating from the norm. An unconventional dynamic between the musician and record producer is largely responsible for this. Sidelined for much of the running time is Dan’s estranged daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) who work their way onto the fringe as Dan attempts to pull his life back together.
Indeed, Dan and Gretta may be down but not down for the count. Inspired by the sound Gretta was able to produce with an acoustic guitar and just her voice — yes, that bit from the previews is every bit as charming in the film, especially since it’s prolonged — Dan starts coming up with ideas about what to do next with his career. Will the chance run-in with this talent be enough to turn things around in his life or has he back-peddled too far?
The exploration of the soul through the prism of music is not particularly inventive, but when done right it is rewarding. Doubly so when the music and the story against which its set as a backdrop are both high in quality. Now and again Begin Again contains a few music video-esque sequences (look to the songs ‘Coming Up Roses’ and ‘Tell Me if You Wanna Go Home’) that seem to heighten both the visual and audio senses. It’s a unique sensory experience that seems to verify Carney’s talents as a genre director. Many will say his 2006 production Once is the superior film to this, considering the thematic and tonal similarities each share. It may be a lesser film but there is no denying the feel-good vibes. These are the kinds of films we can’t really tire of.
At least, not quite as quickly.
Recommendation: Featuring a plethora of good songs and talented performers to back up these songs, Begin Again offers an interesting cinematic experience that succeeds in pleasing genre fans, Ruffalo fans, Knightley fans and fans of rich acoustic melodies. Though not always the most original tale, Carney’s drama often overcomes through sheer likability.
Running Time: 101 mins.
Quoted: “I’m not a performer, I just write songs from time to time.”
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