Director: John Carney
Exclusive Media Group/Sycamore Pictures/Apatow Productions
It was always going to be a tall order – the guy who released that particular strain of ebola on the world of movie-goers, known as Once – as in Once is more than enough! – and 2B or not 2B pencil/British thesp, Keira Knightley. But – Mark Ruffalo! And a film about music (in a sense). So I went to Begin Again – chiefly so that you don’t have to.
Here, the storyline from Once is essentially transported – with edits – to the bigger budget world of New York with big-name movie stars and the same abysmal taste in music. We’re supposed to believe that Ruffalo’s Dan, a failing record company guy who started a hip indie label, was crucial in hip-hop and now can’t hold his life together, can so easily fall for the music that Keira’s nervous, unlikeable songwriter and reluctant performer, gritted-teeth Gretta, drizzles out from the facsimile of her soul. Not only are we meant to believe this it’s presented as some giant revelation – the chance to do what the title of the film instructs. Dan is drunk and in a bar when the lyrics of Greeting Card-Gretta find him. He’s all of a sudden orchestrating her song in his head, creating the epiphany, translating it into a symphony. And, sure, there’s suspension of disbelief but this isn’t like Simon Cowell rubbing his hands all overhimself at the thought of another set of cheekbones, this is Rick Rubin watching Katie Melua and then dry-humping the couch in excitement. This is Peanut Butter Wolf betting the house on Boh Runga.
So, that’s a problem. A huge problem. And though we’ve seen this issue in most other movies that purport to be about music – or those that at least want to take some of the apparent Joie de vivre of music and the music world and bend it to suit their cause – here it’s a deal-breaker. Suspend your disbelief all you like, but I bet you Mark Ruffalo’s guaranteed role in the one-day biopic of Wayne Coyne that there’s no fucking way his character in Begin Again would even piss on Gretta to save her if she was on fire. Though there’s no real risk of fire – or any heat – around Gretta, nor Knightley’s contritely defiant performance. She’s unlikeable and unbelievable – in that order – as any sort of songwriter. And her songs are shit. Somehow everyone that bumps into one of her nearly-tunes in this film acts as if they’ve just won the lottery. It’s embarrassing. I wonder how many actor/agent “just do it” talks were needed between takes.
Ruffalo is far too good for this material, but he’s spent most of his career wandering through films that either don’t need him or can’t use him. Ditto Catherine Keener. She’s a safe pair of hands, sure. But it’s those same five notes from her, in order, all present and accounted for. All correct. Dependable. She’s starting to feel a bit like the Eric Clapton Guitar Solo of actors.
While Dan’s Begin Again is due to him being kicked out from the label he created and struggling to redeem himself with his estranged wife (Keener). Gretta is beginning again – or trying (very!) – because her boyfriend Dave has hit the big time. And has ditched her. Dave had his movies in a song – a pleased with itself nod and wink and gurning grimace toward the movie Once – and now he’s getting the Record Company Red Carpet. Meaning he’s being handed some flooze to start an affair with and all the excuses he could ever need to treat his girlfriend like shit as she falls second to his own importance. That we have to put up with the adenoidal bottle of cock-syrup that is Maroon 5’s Adam Levine for this performance only means one thing: more terrible music.
Begin Again would be stupid if that was all that was going on – but the exhilaration of this film, the empowering aim and the motivation behind the apparent action in the movie is its triumph in absurdity. Dan will help Gretta make an album and they’ll record it on the fly around the streets of New York. She’s so principled of course that she’ll not bow down to the big dollar and isn’t ready to sell out at all. We know this from being introduced to her and her songs through this giant, horrendous, ghastly sell-out of a movie.
Begin Again is the Coldplay of rom-coms. And John Carney needs his fingers and camera broken. Stat.