(SPOILERS) What better way for the director of the weightless Once to advance his stalled career (I had no idea he made two films – three if you include a TV movie – in between that and this, probably because neither did anyone else) than to make an equally weightless movie, but this time with movie stars? That’s pretty much Begin Again, another music business tale, revolving around dreams, love and impossibly good-natured calorie-free aspirational fluff. Mark Ruffalo tries his best, but even he is unable to add any added value in the face of the deluge that is the transformative power of music.
Once failed to work its spell on me – it was okay, I guess – so maybe I’m just in the minority of grouchy bastards. Its inconsequential affability, and the accolades of how naturalistic it was from every quarter, grated rather than soothed (Spielberg found it inspirational, which says a lot). Part of that picture’s draw was the diegetic soundtrack; this wasn’t a musical where the songs are set piece dance numbers. The performances are “live” and germane to the surroundings, as a guy and a girl make music in a humdrum environment. The “authenticity” that infused the film becomes the watchword of Begin Again, and seems to have won many over. Yet director John Carney has written such a contrived, make-believe screenplay that one wonders if any of this is supposed to be taken seriously.
Ruffalo’s Dan Mulligan is an honest indie music exec (he co-founded his label) who has fallen on emotional and career hard times. His wife Miriam (Catherine Keener, underused) has left him and he barely sees his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfield). Dan spends most of his time in various states of inebriation, and then his partner Saul (Mos Def) gives him the push. It’s in a subsequent state of intoxication that he witnesses Gretta (Keira Knightley) reluctantly performing at an open mic night. He thinks her perfectly ordinary song is absolute dynamite, and, when wooing Saul to get on board fails, he opts to take the keeping-it-real approach, setting up a mobile recording studio and getting tracks down at public locations around New York. Yeah, Keira Knightley is what rock’n’roll is all about.
Along the way Gretta helps Dan to reconnect with his daughter. Gretta is dealing with her own relationship grief, having split up with boyfriend Dave Kohl (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine). Formerly they were a song-writing duo; when he found fame she became a spare wheel (fetching coffee) until she found he was having an affair. Gretta even has a loveable cheeky cheerful asexual sidekick who provides a shoulder to cry on, played by (un)lovable twat James Corden.
One might point to the attempts to make this more than just a saccharine sweet tale; there’s lots of swearing. Dan drinks and smokes, and makes a dick of himself. He’s a rebel, man. Ruffalo does pretty good drunk acting. Dan is annoyingly honourable. He hasn’t sold out in the cheesiest of ways, and there’s no seeing the likeable Mos Def as the bad guy. When it gets to the point that Dan is calling in favours to loyal artists (CeeLo Green) he got to where they are today, the sick bucket is constantly at hand.
“But the picture doesn’t go the traditional love story route!” you might cry. Well, neither did Once, which makes Begin Again look more vauntingly cynical than anything meritorious. Gretta’s album proves to be a roaring success, so all those calculatedly “legitimate” performances really sold the authenticity (authenticity, Carney doesn’t seem to realise, is something he has packed and sold and made every bit as glossy and fake as the biz upon which he passes judgement).
I don’t know quite where Carney got the idea of a musician who makes it big from writing a song that appears in a movie. I mean, not a guy who saw a song in a movie he directed get nominated and win Best Original Song Oscar. The Maroon 5 singer is utterly charmless, which he may be in real life, but I’m not sure that’s the intention. Shouldn’t we be able to see what Gretta once saw in him? Apparently Levine did the role for free, for the art. He should have paid them for the privilege. Keira is fine with the singing part; she can carry a note okay. But she’s so naturally reserved, the surrounding picture becomes ever more cosy and unassuming.
Carney’s natural response to any given soundtrack moment is a montage sequence, so his special brand of semi-musical clearly isn’t breaking any new ground. Indeed, Begin Again once went under the shockingly awful Can a Song Save Your Life? There are copious scenes here that are every bit as insincere as that title, from manufactured moments where Dan and Gretta wander Manhattan sharing songs (you know, you can tell a lot about someone by what’s on their playlist) to the fairy tale of Violet playing on Gretta’s album, to Dan’s sappy drunken visualisation of invisible musicians with visible instruments beefing up Gretta’s acoustic performance.
This is a wishy-washy, banal picture, too feeble to be actively dislikeable, incapable of any of the uplifting emotions it wants to imbue. Once at least was authentically low budget. Begin Again is merely authentically calculated. A more honest version of this film would have Hugh Grant in the lead. And, while I surprise myself saying this, it would probably have been more entertaining for him.