Film: Begin Again (2014)
Stars: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Catherine Keener
Director: John Carney
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Song-"Lost Stars")
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars
Seven years ago (man, time flies), John Carney created something really special called Once. I remember sitting in the theater of the movie, just letting the beautiful, epic music wash over me. It was something to behold, and even though the stage musical could never be as good as the film (though Steve Kazee came close), that music was transcendent.
(Spoilers Ahead) So I was nervous headed into Begin Again, particularly after the first ten minutes. This was not the film that I was expecting. Once is a blue moon sort of situation, something you cannot possibly repeat and the sort of artwork that defines a person’s career for always (he can write a thousand books, and people will still think Stephen King’s best novel is The Stand). But the beginning of this movie makes you worry you’ve stumbled into a truly tragic film. Mark Ruffalo is overacting to the hilt as Dan (we get it, he’s an oblivious jerk, we don’t need it beaten into our head), and Catherine Keener once again is lost at the edges of a film (seriously-did she sign a compact with the devil after Into the Wild to only take uninteresting roles in movies-is that what getting nominated for Capote cost her?).
However, once we get into Gretta’s (Knightley) story, the film picks up, and we get the real centerpiece of the film: the music. It’s hard to compare with the calming sea of The Swell Season, but we get close with the upbeat jazz of this film’s score. I loved every time that we heard Gretta or her arrogant boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, perfectly cast in a role that knows his thespian limitations) open their mouths to sing. The film is built around a really wonderful concept: that records are so overproduced that they need to get out of the studio, and so we hear the sounds of New York in the background. The movie is at its absolute best whenever it is centering the plot around the music being created: Carney’s writing and directing clearly knows how to frame that up in a way to make each song go with the theme of the film and still feel special.
The music is enough, quite frankly, to recommend the movie. It’s not just worth it to buy the soundtrack (though you’ll want to), but you also need to see how it comes alive in the plot. The rest of the film, it must be said, never quite hits the high notes of the music and the musical numbers. Ruffalo’s character never quite reaches “real” for me-he relies too heavily on clichés. Ruffalo is an actor that I go hot-and-cold on: he’s nearly always entertaining, but there are moments onscreen when he thinks the work isn’t up to his level that his acting tends to suffer, and he can’t sell the clichéd scenes with his daughter in particular (it’s so odd, because his best work as an actor remains his misguided uncle scenes in You Can Count on Me, a modern masterpiece on-par with Once). There are moments he’s there (the “date” with Knightley), but as a whole this feels like it should have gone to an actor with a little harsher edge, or one who can elevate so-so material (not just raise great material).
Knightley is better, though she too doesn’t always seem to understand the motives of her character. Is she actually in love, or is she just pretending to be? Is she just as shallow as her boyfriend (she gets into a kerfuffle late in the film that if you look at it objectively reeks of stubbornness)? Knightley doesn’t always let these ideas percolate, but only seems to really come alive in the songs. I actually quite liked Levine, but he doesn’t have the abilities that the other two actors do when they’re at their greatest and is merely fine when it comes to the actual performance (unlike Justin Timberlake, though, he was smart enough to start out with a role that he could actually pull off). The best cast member, actually, is James Corden, who is utterly charming as Gretta’s befuddled, down-on-his-luck best friend. He finds some really great side moments (does he love her, is he jealous of her ability?), and makes the most of a very small character (and makes his Steve seem like a character that you would genuinely root for Gretta to end up with over the main character and the handsome ex).
Overall, therefore, this is not Once. This is not going to make the tops of greatest film lists and you won’t opine for it seven years from now when John Carney makes another musical. But what I will say is that this, in a sea of summer blockbusters that went nowhere, is a refreshing film with plot, life, unpredictability, and most vibrant of all, music.