You’d be forgiven for thinking that Begin Again was just a big-budget, American remake of John Carney’s 2007 hit, Once – both concerning lonely souls in a city, drawn together by a love for music which allows them to overcome their existing emotional problems. Luckily, however, Begin Again is perhaps different enough to stand alone. Just. Warm, charming and almost impossible to resist, it defies you not to smile for the majority of the movie in exactly the same way that another recent feel-good movie Chef does. This time, the apex of the film’s charm is Mark Ruffalo, who plays Dan, a down-on-his-luck record producer with a whole welter of problems, including being a neglectful, divorced, unemployed, alcoholic father. Sure, this isn’t the most challenging acting Ruffalo has done in his entire career, but his enthusiasm is so infectious that it fills the cinema almost instantly and he’s clearly having the time of his life playing this very over-the-top character. We get a genuinely rooted character, and every time Ruffalo and co-star Keira Knightley exchange a smile, as an audience member you simply have to grin, too. Casting in the supporting roles is on point too, with James Corden and Cee Lo Green giving disarming and hilarious performances respectively.
Knightley plays Greta, a songwriter who recently broke up with her boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, with an assortment of various types of facial hair throughout) as he finds fame in Los Angeles. She encounters Dan in a very clever sequence which backtracks, showing the meeting first and then the characters’ paths leading up to it, and they agree to make a record together. Aside from her terrifyingly strong jawline when she sings, Knightley is excellent here too – bringing a needed sense of realism and honesty to the film.
It’s this naturalistic and honest nature of the relationships portrayed in the film that gives it its heart. I expected far more cheese and emotional cliché walking in than I got. Almost every serious dramatic scene feels perfectly weighted and very, very real. Carney doesn’t overstate messages – in fact, he often leaves things unsaid what a lot of writers would have put bluntly and unsubtly out in the open. Whereas in other films, only a kiss would do, or some terribly written dialogue, Carney produces far more powerful drama with simply a lingering glance.
The relationship between Ruffalo and Knightley is a good example of this – there is a kind of soft ambiguity between them. Like a real relationship between two people, you refreshingly never quite know what’s going on inside their heads. The film stubbornly resists cliché after cliché – even taunting it in one specific scene, where everything seems perfectly set up for a classic romantic comedy finish. Instead, the film doesn’t insist on coupling people up, and leaves them to their own devices, to be as happy as they can. It’s a breath of fresh air in today’s cinema.
However, it’s not perfect. Although very current and contextual, playing cleverly with the ever-changing situation of today’s music industry, Begin Again lacks any form of bite as a social or musical commentary. While this doesn’t make it a bad film in itself, as it doesn’t even try to be a scathing commentary, it does contribute to the overall feel of this film – gentle and harmless. After the initial half-hour, nothing noteworthy actually ever happens in the film. The characters neither face setbacks nor changes more as tiny, almost unnoticeable developments. Ruffalo’s character has a number of very serious problems on his hands – but Carney seems to completely ignore them and make everything seem very easy for him. As for Knightley, she portrays a rich English girl who never actually encounters a serious dilemma for 90% of the film.
Gentility is dangerous for a film, but luckily the aforementioned charm and sheer happiness that Begin Again exudes is enough, for me anyway. Upon watching, my friend stated that it “did for music what Chef did for food.” To an extent, this is an excellent summation: both are very funny, real, moving, and delightfully acted. But although they’re a pair of thoroughly enjoyable treats, I feel like Begin Again‘s slow pace is even softer and more languid than that of Chef’s.
Personally, I believe the film can be summed up by its own soundtrack. Easy listening, but could perhaps do with a remix or two.