The deck was stacked against Begin Again from the very beginning. As I sat down in my seat at the Arclight in Hollywood, my pen broke. Truly frustrating, especially for an habitual note-taker like myself. I mean sure, nothing broke that was essential to the pen’s designed purpose – I can still write with it – but come on. Then Don comes up to do his spiel. Don. Hah! Don is a joke, and he knows it. Acts like he owns the place. So I think it’s pretty clear that I’m not in the mood for a light-hearted music movie. Surprisingly, the latest film from John Carney (Once) went a long way toward cheering me up.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Dan Mulligan, a formerly successful music producer whose life has fallen into a haze of alcohol and loneliness after a split from his wife (Catherine Keener). One night, while drunkenly prowling around New York City, Dan discoverers Gretta (Keira Knightley), a songwriter begrudgingly performing at the behest of her friend, Steve (James Corden). Gretta is nursing her own loneliness after a bitter break-up with her successful musician boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) (This character is not named “Dave Grohl,” though I thought he was for most of the film). Dan convinces Gretta to be lonely with him, and the two proceed to make an album using the streets of New York as their studio.
If Begin Again – renamed from the terrible title of Can a Song Save Your Life? – had solely been about the guerrilla-style recording of an album it would have been nearly perfect. The music itself is all airy singer-songwriter stuff, but it is well-executed, and everything about the production – from Dan’s hallucinogenic envisioning of it, to the formation of Gretta’s backing band, to the recording itself – is engaging and entertaining. But I suppose there’s not enough drama in the avant-garde music industry for Carney’s liking.
Here’s the thing though, the drama that Carney injects into the film isn’t very dramatic. There are some family issues between Dan, Miriam (Keener), and their daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld, who is apparently making a career out of playing the estranged daughter after 3 Days to Kill), but none of it is especially interesting. Likewise with the relationship drama between Gretta and Dave, and the possible romance she is forming with Dan. Even Dan’s problems with alcohol are thrown out there with little to no intrigue. I appreciate Carney’s desire to avoid melodrama, but instead we are left with rather bland characters.
Luckily a few of these poorly scripted characters are salvaged by strong performances. Ruffalo and Knightley are both quite good, with Ruffalo’s Dan straddling the likability line especially well at times. James Corden (who you nerds may know from a couple of episodes of Doctor Who) is nice comic relief in his role, as are the members of the band (look up their names if you want to know – I’m not Wikipedia, shit). On the other hand, Levine is largely charisma-less, and Keener and Steinfeld can’t quite elevate their characters, despite their best attempts.
In spite of its flaws, Begin Again manages to be an entertaining film, with a few really fun stretches to redeem the largely dull first act. The movie doesn’t have a whole lot to offer from a story perspective, but I doubt you will regret spending a few bucks to see what the actors create on the screen. Plus it’s not too long, which is alway refreshing these days. It’s definitely not 144 minutes like Don said it would be before the movie started. Don. That guy is the worst.