I’m sorry that I’m going to be another one of those people that compares Begin Again (2013, wide-released in 2014) to writer/director John Carney‘s first effort, Once. Generally, comparing the follow-up to an indie classic is unfair, and the smartest thing to do is walk into the theater with no expectations.
However, at nearly every turn, Begin Again encourages these connections through the characters and plot. For those of you who saw Once, see if any of this sounds familiar: a forlorn guy, who was cheated on by his partner, meets a young woman that is charming and musically inclined—a woman whose partner/maybe ex-partner is abroad and could reenter her life—and they decide to record an album together, always flirting with the idea of a romance but never quite reaching it? Meanwhile, there are musical numbers that fit into a real-world context.
I’m not trying to say that Begin Again and Once are the same; obviously I am being selective in that description, and the characters are reasonably unique with their own arcs/backgrounds that are different enough, but there are so many similarities that you can’t drop off your expectations formed by the other flick. Begin Again is basically Once, but a lot louder: the cast is relatively star-studded (Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, CeeLo Green, Catherine Keener, Mos Def, James Corden, Adam Levine, and—less famously but more excitingly—the wonderful Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit fame), the arcs are predictable, the stakes are way higher, and the dialogue is often on-the-nose. While I called Once hot chocolate, I would call Begin Again lukewarm hot chocolate, because it’s still good, but is now kind of stale, and the sweetness is a bit too srong.
After all, the best parts of Begin Again are the ones that capture the spirit of its predecessor, but not the specifics: in one scene, drunk and down-on-his-luck music producer Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo) sees a humble Gretta (Knightley) play a song on her guitar, and he visualizes the other instruments that could elevate the tune to a minor piece of brilliance. It’s creative, it’s cute, and it serves the story, all while illuminating the characters.
Those moments are few and far in-between, though, and are excised from the script to make room for exposition that we don’t need. After the five-minute opening, we go back in time to watch fifteen minutes of backstory that shows how Mark Scruffalo got to be in such rough shape. Later, when he approaches Gretta after her live-music performance, he recaps in brief his crappy day, and the plot moves forward. That is all we needed; we don’t have to see every little thing, but rather can get the feel of it through carefully placed dialogue. The important thing is the character interactions.
I’m being hard on Begin Again, though, I will admit. For all its standard and repetitive qualities, it’s enjoyable with moments of charm, and it has a ton of heart. I think of it as an exceptional version of a standard romance flick, not quite elevated into something that will remain in public memory for a long time, but certainly something that I would rent on demand for a pleasant evening in. The actors/actresses do a lot with the variable-quality script, the characters themselves are unique from each other (not necessarily from others in similar movies), and the filmmaking itself captures a certain flavor of New York City that makes the setting stand out. Also, Adam Levine is really good at playing the worst type of pretentious pop star, to the point that my partner and I have a running theory that people told him he was just in a really long music video/making of documentary.
I almost get the feeling, reflecting on Begin Again‘s shortcomings, that there might have been an inkling of a good idea. As much as Greta and Dan are making an anti-album (self-produced and recorded on the street with non-major musicians), Begin Again could have been intended as an anti-film. It flirts with the romantic tropes, flips some cliches, and is aware that the music is meant to be pop-friendly/insubstantial. Maybe this is a satire on the easy-to-swallow, faux-genuine nature of hipster aesthetics in mainstream culture? If that’s an idea that Carney wants to tackle, it is not really carried throughout the film, thanks to the shortcuts with characterization, exposition, and dialogue. If that was the real undercurrent and unique quality of the film, then the handling of it is at best haphazard and fleeting.
So what is there to say about Begin Again? It certainly shows that Carney is a talented filmmaker, and could make some great mainstream movies; it shows that he can do a lot more with a lot less; it makes me worry that he’s one-note. If you liked Once and can actively suppress your memories of it, you’ll find this movie enjoyable, if predictable; if you never saw Once, you’ll find it better than its generic kin. If you like cutesy pseudo-musicals, you’ll find it more than a little bit enchanting, although the songs are not terribly memorable. You won’t regret seeing it, but you won’t regret missing it either.
Oh, and if I may go on two tangents: first, while Hailee Steinfeld is a delight, do we need another narrative about how a fourteen-year-old girl dresses “easy” because she lacks a father figure, and needs to dress like a “lady” before she impresses a boy she likes? The whole conversations about how she dresses are pretty weird and a little gross. Maybe it’s indicative of the predictable characterizations of most of the people in the movie, but this one was nearly nauseating. Second, why end the film on a (not-quite-there) emotional resolution, but then have the narrative resolution come in scenes overlaid with the credits? What? Who does that! You don’t get both; you can go for the emotional resolution, the plot resolution, or—if you’re really talented—both, but you don’t make the decision to end on one and then continue the other in a credits sequence. That’s a cop-out. In response to both of those complaints, all I have to say is that you can do better, Carney. I know you can.