As a well-deserved and much-needed relief in between summer explosions and robot reboots, Begin Again is a touching tale about a chance encounter between a disgraced and disgruntled music-business executive and a young, sad singer-songwriter that turns into a promising collaboration between two tossed-aside talents.
From the musical mind that created Once (2006) comes an indie-ish film that will have you walking out of the theater undoubtedly humming. The latest film from writer-director John Carney is a soul-stirring dramedy about what happens when lost souls meet and make beautiful music.
The film stars Mark Ruffalo, doing what he does best, embodying a hapless hero in medium like You Can Count On Me and The Kids Are Alright. Even the Incredible Hulk is a sad, loveable anti-protagonist of sorts. Mr. Ruffalo is a gloriously hirsute actor with great besmirched speech and forever redeeming bedroom eyes. Basically, a movie can’t help but be bettered by his presence. In this, he plays Dan, an exhausted music executive who is metaphorically on his last leg. His company doesn’t need him anymore, and he is tired of the grind that goes into releasing meaningless crap that will most likely turn into one hit wonders and then fade away fast. A cash-strapped booze hound of a loveable loser who is becoming more and more desperate to make a musical discovery that will restore his status in the industry, give him a reason to pull his life back together and allow him to pick up a bar tab once in a while.
Enter Keira Knightley’s cute, quiet character, Gretta. She comes into the picture as the girlfriend of a pop star on the rise, played by Adam Levine of Maroon 5. When Levine’s character predictably leaves her for another girl on tour, she is all alone in New York City. Knightley is back to quirky form, a la Love Actually, as opposed to the British period pieces she doles out once a year. Also, there is a rumor that she actually sang some of the songs in the film. Knightley does a splendid job of flirting with actual heartbreak here, thus convincing us she has more layers than two.
Ruffalo’s sage-like Dan takes Knightley’s Gretta under his wing, but when his colleagues shrug at her talent and ask for a demo, the pair decide to set out on their own. Studios be damned, they use the city as their tracking—recording in subways, on rooftops, etc. Begin Again’s backbone is also a love song dedicated to New York City.
Now don’t let the casting of judges from The Voice fool you (Cee-Lo Green also has a role in the film); this movie is still more indie than mainstream. Hell, even Adam Levine has some acting chops (granted he is playing a musician so it’s not that much of a stretch). Mos Def (as Yasiin Bey), Catherine Keener, and Hailee Steinfeld fill out a greatly talented cast, not to mention the sweetly James Corden, who is about to blow up soon (mark my words).
[Editor’s note: Corden has been tapped as the possible replacement for when Craig Ferguson exits the Late Late Show at the end of this year. Stay tuned….]
However, there is a moment in the film where you think the soul mate vibe has gone too far, and Ruffalo and Knightley might kiss or make things awkward, thus ruining the perfect platonic inspiration of the whole story, but luckily Carney takes the right road and gets back on track. He saves the spirit and lets the song sing out as the universe intended without pushing or forcing clichés.
This is where and why the movie shines. Because, just when you think it is going to let you down, it lifts you up. It could be one thing, but it is many things rolled up in a nice package of redeemable cinematic faith that these types of passion projects can still be made and seen by a large audience. Thank you, we are welcome.
Having hit theaters in early July, this movie has enjoyed some subtle staying power at the box office over the last two months. This is one of those rare movies that will appeal to both young and old alike. Not to mention the soundtrack—featuring songs performed by Levine, Green, and Knightley—is outstanding. The heart is what keeps this film going.
Whatever you want to call Begin Again—romantic comedy, musical drama, romantic comedy-drama with songs—it’s thoroughly enjoyable and will have you believing in new beginnings.
Begin Again, which is rated R, is currently in theaters.