Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: John Carney
Screenplay: John Carney
Runtime: 104 minutes
Cast: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, James Corden.
Trailer: “Babe, we need to talk.”
Plot: A chance invitation to perform brings talented but unrecognised musician Gretta to the notice of disgraced music executive Dan. Both are recovering from the dissolution of their relationships, in Gretta’s case with pop sensation Dave Kohl, and embark upon a fruitful but low key musical collaboration. Producing and recording songs all over New York City, they slowly rekindle the passion for music that each had thought they lost, with the help of a few friends.
Review: John Carney’s Begin Again tells the story of two characters in search of redemption that find and help each other reach it; fortunately for us the film’s sins are outshone by its virtues, making it a slight but enjoyable entertainment. The narrative takes a while to build up steam; and the clever structure used to tell us the character’s backgrounds, through flashbacks that mark the first half of the film, unfortunately stalls the action more than it animates it. However, once the audience is up to speed, the film improves as it goes along – providing an excellent soundtrack, some witty repartee, and an underdog meets putting-the-band-back-together vibe.
A chance performance of an unfinished, unplugged song by the talented but unappreciated Gretta (Kiera Knightley) attracts the attention of walking mid-life crisis Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Seeing Gretta’s chance open mic performance from a different perspective, drunken Dan and the audience have the pleasure of hearing the track fully backed, although with the unfortunate touch of an accompanying Scooby-Doo ghost orchestra on screen (you’ll know it when you see it). Gretta is heading back to dear old Blighty the next day, but Dan convinces her to stay and pitch to his label the next day. They are interested, but won’t fund a demo – cue Dan and Gretta with the idea to record tracks, guerilla style, on the streets of New York with the unpaid support of a few friends. The album that they produce, naturally, is hot shit.
That may not sound by much, but the film is animated by two typical but interesting enough back stories for the characters that I was initially sceptical about. Gretta has come to New York with long-term boyfriend and collaborator Dave (Adam Levine) who has made it big through a film soundtrack; his quick corruption by stardom leaves Gretta abandoned, and primes the fourth act of the film. If Bollywood has taught us anything, it is that as soon as a man grows a moustache he turns into an irredeemable dick, as is the case here (and it blossoms into a full Al-Shabaab beard, leading to Dave’s hipsterish ‘it’s intense’ and Gretta’s cutting ‘it’s big’). If Gretta had only heeded the warning signs. Knightley’s performance is just the right combination of innocence and selective cynicism; and she is dynamic and engaging here, delivering some of the best lines of the film with cutting timing.
Dan, on the other hand, is heading into a full nervous breakdown and losing control of his company. Note to self: if someone says ‘don’t do this here’ and your automatic response is ‘I’m going to do this right fucking here!’ it is probably a good opportunity to pause and take stock of your position. If it is followed up by you trying to steal art off the walls and quoting a film from back before we knew Tom Cruise was crazy, you're in real fucking trouble. Dan doesn’t, leading him to a series of bars, dragging along his under-age daughter, and when Dan can’t pay leading to the great exchange of Dan: ‘What happened to your pocket money?’ Daughter: ‘I spent it all on condoms.’ Ruffalo is endearing enough, and through this shaggy performance sells the typical “bad father, business partner, husband but with a heart of gold” routine enough to make the character endearing. At work, he’s supported in an odd-couple routine by straightman Saul (a winkingly cast Yasiin Bey), at one point halting Dan’s amateur dramatics with a ‘This is not Jerry Maguire.’ Moments of sanity like this, and a smartly cast Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld, keep the film from capsizing into the too cute.
In particular, the performance of James Corden is outstanding and the screen lights up every time he arrives to deliver a new, witty absurdity. A comedy veteran from the United Kingdom, Corden needs his own starring vehicle and quickly, Hollywood.
There is something a little on the nose about a film this heavily produced and marketed wanting to claim the mantle of scrappy upstart, but the sharp dialogue and pleasant journey helps gloss over that. The film is not without its flaws – wanting to be part Inside Llewellyn Davis folk tale, part Manhattan celebration of the city, without having the seriousness or puncturing humour of either – but pieces of wisdom, like Dan’s description of ageing as ‘gotta travel over a lot more string to get to the pearls,’ makes up for them. Frequently, the film will start out on another unpromising cliché, but make good on it with a nice twist. For example, a headphone splitter which allows Gretta and Dan to wander the city listening with earbuds in to each other’s guilty ipod pleasures – almost culminates in a walk down Broadway set to Sinatra, but then amusingly zags into the two dancing to eighties classics in a giant fuck you to the nightclub they find themselves in.
Overall, the film is worth praise for the traps it avoids – skirting a romance between the two, but sensibly declining; avoiding casting Gretta as simply a muse or manic pixie dream girl; refusing to be another manufactured romance in the mid-life crisis mobile. Even the script seems cognisant of these risks; at one point mocking an over-inflated Dave for naming his debut album ‘On the Road’ and then having him realise ‘that’s actually a terrible album name.’ Ultimately it sticks the landing (minus an odd coda over the credits) and delivers a good date movie.
Rating: Three stars.