Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in Mike Mills’ Beginners
Beginners nearly had me crying within the first 10 minutes and I’m not normally a guy who cries at movies. All the more disappointing then that it was never able to achieve the same level of emotional power during the subsequent hour and a half. It’s still a good movie, and moving, but for a few minutes there I thought it was going to be great and it fell short.
Inspired by writer/director Mike Mills’ own experiences with his father, the story follows Oliver whose father Hal comes out of the closet at age 75 following the death of his wife. Hal goes on to live a happy, engaged second life as a gay man until his own sickness and death some years later. Told in flashback, this part of the story dovetails the events taking place in the present as Oliver pursues the beautiful but troubled Anna. They’re both transient characters fearing commitment and the inevitable disappointment found in any relationship. As they grow closer, they become more uncertain and the idea is that maybe Oliver can draw courage from his dead father’s late life embrace of the unknown and learn to chart a happy course with Anna after all.
That’s all fine if a little bit programmatic, but both halves of the story don’t carry the same weight, power or honesty. The parts with Oliver and Hal are amazing. Christopher Plummer is superb as Hal, filling his character with warmth and humor as he confronts the uncertainty of life as a single gay man in an era where that is now acceptable. There’s a childlike innocence fused to the kind of wisdom you can only gain through a lifetime of experience. The scenes between Plummer and Ewan McGregor as Oliver feel real and lived in. They’re alternately funny and increasingly heartbreaking as Hal learns of his fate and grows increasingly sick. Plummer is also terrific with ER‘s Goran Visnjic as his somewhat flamboyant new partner Andy. There’s even a wonderfully moving scene at the end between Oliver and Andy where Andy wonders why Oliver hasn’t called or visited in the wake of Hal’s passing.
Unfortunately, the story between Oliver and Anna isn’t nearly as strong as the one between Oliver and Hal and the movie loses its way whenever Hal isn’t around. Though their relationship starts off promisingly as Oliver and Anna meet cute at a party, the romance never has the spark of life contained in the other half of the film and the couple’s ups and downs never have any gravity or sense of consequence. Ewan McGregor is handsome and Melanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) is beautiful as Anna, but neither of them are very expressive actors and they don’t have a lot of chemistry together. As a result, the movie sags when it should be coming alive.
Mills, who previously wrote and directed the Sundance entry Thumbsucker, also show an unfortunate tendency toward precious, overly-assured cuteness that weighs the film down. It’s as though he doesn’t have the confidence to just let his simple beautiful story stand on its own when it very easily could have. For starters, there’s a twinkly, overly sensitive piano score that is mostly inoffensive but grates on the nerves after awhile. Then there’s an ongoing bit of business between Oliver and Hal’s dog where Oliver imagines the dog can speak to him. The dog’s words are expressed through subtitles and it’s funny the first time, but doesn’t really add anything to the story before finally becoming a little irritating. Oliver also has a bunch of annoying artsy friends who add color without adding much substance. These things make for trailer-friendly clips, but they don’t enrich the film at all. Instead they feel like filler.
I’m being a little too hard on a film that is actually pretty lovely and still relatively moving. The lesser half of the movie isn’t bad at all, it just pales in comparison to that amazing first half. It feels like Mills lived one half of the movie. It has the weight of truth, but the rest comes across as merely a screenplay construct. It’s true there probably isn’t much of a movie without both halves together, but one has an honesty and a purity and a vitality to which the other just can’t compare. That one good half is enough to make the movie well worth seeing, but the final unfortunate result is that Beginners is only a good film when it maybe could’ve been a great one.
Beginners. USA 2011. Written and directed by Mike Mills. Cinematography by Kasper Tuxen. Original music by Roger Neill, Dave Palmer and Brian Reitzell. Edited by Olivier Bugge Coutte. Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos and China Shavers. 1 hour 45 minutes. MPAA rated R. 3.5 stars (out of 5)
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