by Kathie Smith
Full disclosure: I found John Carney’s 2006 movie Once to be a painful experience akin to fingernails on a chalkboard, with a story so syrupy sweet viewers should have been issued syringes with insulin for fear of sugar comas and music so bland it makes Coldplay sound avant-garde. (Labels I have earned for such opinions, such as curmudgeon and unromantic, would not be entirely false.) The good news for Carney’s most recent movie, Begin Again, is that my expectations were extremely low, but the bad news is that I still hold a grudge against Once and its hit song “Falling Slowly” for haunting me for eight years. Carney, returning after a dark hiatus with two movies named Zonad and The Rafters, dishes out much of the same but with real actors, a qualifier that makes this movie sufferable if not begrudgingly charming.
Director: John Carney
Producers: Tobin Armbrust, Anthony Bregman
Writer: John Carney
Cinematographer: Yaron Orbach
Editor: Andrew Marcus
Music: Gregg Alexander
Cast: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, James Corden, Adam Levine, Mos Def, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, CeeLo Green
Premiere: September 7, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 27, 2014
US Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a train-wreck record producer who nurses his self-indulgences with a flask and proceeds to get fired in front of his teenage daughter from the company he helped found. Meanwhile, also in the Big Apple, British born Greta (Keira Knightley) is on a rendezvous with rock star boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, no relation to Joyless Creature’s Matt) who has just made it big—so big that he quickly finds greener pastures with a woman named Mim. Call it magic or fate or some combination of the two, but Dan finds himself drowning his sorrows in an endless shot glass on a club’s open mic night where Greta, at the encouragement of her friend, gets up to sing her folksy blues.
Begin Again opens with that moment when Greta steps to the stage and Dan sees her potential through his drunken haze, and then it carefully backtracks to tell the story of these two down-and-out individuals—Dan’s rock bottom day and Greta’s more prolonged arrival in New York and eventual fallout with Dave. After seeing Greta perform, Dan immediately offers to produce a record for Greta, temporarily forgetting he was just fired, and Greta, seeing right through Dan’s boozy bullshit, declares that she is done with her NYC living experience and is packing up to leave. The next morning Dan sobers up to the fact that he doesn’t really have a job at a record studio any more, and Greta realizes that getting dumped by her boyfriend may be a sign to take a professional chance on this overly confident loser, and they both embark on a little DIY all-for-nothing foray into independent music.
Their tandem emotional recovery is written plainly on the wall from Dan and Greta’s very first meeting, but there is a surprising amount of texture to these characters in this blasé story, much to the credit of Ruffalo and Knightley. Our first impression of Dan—an alcoholic bozo with an inflated ego—softens as we learn about his recently failed marriage and get to know him in the generous space the movie gives him. Similarly with Greta, Knightley’s comfortable performance (including vocals) works wonders with some pretty paltry material. There is also a fair amount of spark from the supporting cast: Mos Def as Dan’s frustrated business partner, Catherine Keener as his estranged wife, Hailee Steinfeld as his depressive daughter, CeeLo as his friend and recording client, and even Levine, the milquetoast rock star playing the milquetoast rock star with subtle (and likely unintended) irony, as Greta’s clueless boyfriend and ex-boyfriend.
But most of that good news is dropped into a hackneyed scenario courtesy of New York City clichés. Dan and Greta, unable to make a successful pitch for studio time, decide to record their next big thing in the streets and embrace the unpredictable sound effects of the city. They include the ambient sounds of the subway, emergency vehicles, and people, and Dan even recruits a group of kids playing in an alley to do some backup vocals. Piled with notes of impossibility, Begin Again wants to transport you with a Brooklyn based fairytale where anything is possible. It also attaches some fantasy elements to the struggling state of the music business, sermonizing that, as an artist, all you need to do is follow your heart to be a success. Of course, it helps if CeeLo can tweet about it.
I have to believe that Carney titled his movie without knowing that he was sharing it with a Taylor Swift song, but Greta’s music under Dan’s supervision almost seems like an homage to the country pop queen. Although that might not be a compliment, Begin Again’s position, like Swift’s, as a middle-of-the-road populist is not such a bad place to be, especially in a summer movie atmosphere devoid of breezy low-key romances. If explosions and superheroes are not your thing, there is certainly no need to buckle up for Begin Again—just sit back, relax, and maybe fall asleep.