Director: John Carney
Writer: John Carney
Stars: Kiera Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld
Release date: June 27th, 2014
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Running time: 104 minutes
Best part: Knightley and Ruffalo’s chemistry.
Worst part: Levine’s bland performance.
Back in 2006, which now seems like a millennia ago, the world was introduced to a mass distribution of iconic indie-dramas. I know, this seems like a rough estimate of this phase’s beginnings. However, most importantly, the world’s core shook uncontrollably when it first heard the sweet, soothing sounds of Irish romantic-drama Once. To me, this kicked off the transcontinental mix of cinematic touchstones and life-altering tales that would continue to this day.
Recently adapted into a major theatre production, this Oscar-winning indie darling tells a heartbreaking story about second chances, sticky situations, and songwriting. So, why am I talking about one of the past decade’s most ambitious cinematic experiments? Well, it’s a matter of principle. Here, Once‘s writer/director John Carney has turned his attention to Hollywood’s intricate systems and obvious appeal. His latest effort, Begin Again, certainly has the right amount of guile and charm. In fact, these traits might push this dramedy into many critics’ Top 10 lists. However, for those who have seen Once, the similarities between these movies come off as trite and convenient. For instance, the narrative takes several predictable and contrived turns toward its inevitably cheerful denouement. In the first scene, we are introduced to scornful singer/songwriter Greta (Kiera Knightley). Slouched into the corner of a popular New York nightspot, Greta is forced into the club’s fear-driven spotlight by Steve (James Corden). Despite failing to impress the hipster-centric crowd, one bizarre attendee stands up and cheers audibly for her sultry stylings. This crowd member, despite not looking the part, is a major record producer on the l0ok out for inspirational music. Dan (Mark Ruffalo), having been fired earlier that day by long-term business partner Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def), is one step away from packing it in.
As you can tell, the narrative is a superfluous mix of conventional and ineffectual plot-treads. Pushed away by his estranged music-journalist wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), and advantageous daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), Dan’s drunken antics eventually hurl him into Greta’s equally-treacherous path. So, with my complaints rising to the surface, why do I like it so much? After leaving the theatre, my enjoyment levels hurriedly elevated like Knightley’s transitions between notes. The narrative, divided into two definitive parts, becomes comfort food for the senses. Greta, having been dumped by deceitful rock-star boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, delivering a nod to John Mayer), is the movie’s most scintillating ingredient. Pitted against Ruffalo’s husband-and-father storyline, her arc becomes infinitely more watchable. Aiming to distract his audience, Carney’s style comes off like a twee exterior covering up a near-rotten core. the first third, charting Dan and Greta’s meeting point, moves at an unnecessarily sluggish pace. Pinpointing a particular scene, the story follows a Nick Hornby-like structure toward the second-two acts. Carney, following a familiar pattern, sticks too close to his previous effort. With Hollywood success looming over him, his generic follow-up never takes shape. In fact, Begin Again feels like it’s missing a final third/quarter needed to wrap-up certain story-lines and round out certain viewpoints.
“Musicians, for the most part, are monosyllabic teenagers who really don’t have a whole lot to say.” (Dan (Mark Ruffalo), Begin Again).
Despite the false notes, the movie’s endless magnetic streak, gleeful optimism, and array of Voice judges eclipse the aforementioned quibbles. Carney’s direction, pulling Once above the pack, dives head-long into the limbo-like area between realism and pure-and-unadulterated fantasy. Here, with style and substance performing a profound duet throughout the taut 104-minute run-time, Carney’s bigger-is-better shades come out swinging. With A-listers, a much more alluring city, and vastly different genres to play with, the story’s blissful pace and consistent tone create heart-wrenching moments to bounce off of. Creating an outdoor album with the tools at their disposal, Dan, Greta, Steve and co. take to Manhattan’s wondrous streets to escape their humdrum personal lives. These sequences, in which Greta’s songs covet the screen for elongated takes, display Carney’s knack for fusion and visual flourishes. His camerawork refuses to stay still for extended periods. Racing through even the most tedious of moments, there’s always something to pick out of Carney’s highly-stylised compositions. In addition, much more so than anything else, our attractive performers add ever-lasting gravitas to this otherwise harmless affair. Breaking out of her period-piece stigma, Knightley shines in this strong-willed role. Charting their swift rise-and-fall stories, Knightley and Ruffalo’s chemistry bolsters several corny and heavy-handed sequences. Sadly, Levine’s first acting gig yields transparent results.
Sitting comfortably between Inside Llewyn Davis and Jersey Boys, Begin Again delivers enough laughs and smile-worthy twists to skate by with minimal effort. Ruffalo, Knightley, and Steinfeld – leading this cute-and-kind-hearted cast – bolster this mostly repetitive and needless venture. With similar story and character beats to Once, Carney’s latest strums to an all-too-familiar tune. If anything, this will become a musical whose soundtrack eclipses everything around it.