Irish filmmaker John Carney had a surprise success in 2006 with his low-budget Once, set in Dublin, which won the Oscar for best original song and went on to become a hit Broadway musical.
Begin Again certainly looks like a movie intended to replicate the winning indie charm of Once but it targeted a larger, more lucrative North American audience. Carney’s ongoing theme seems to be the importance of not selling out; audience opinions may vary as to whether his next outing toed the line. An unabashedly romantic urban musical fantasy about the transformative powers of music—the movie’s original title when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival was Can a Song Save Your Life?—Begin Again is improbable, heavy-handed with the heartstrings, and more often than not a great deal of fun.
Carney uses flashbacks to establish the emotional context for Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dan’s (Mark Ruffalo) fateful meeting in a Lower Manhattan music club and the urgency in their mutual need to break out of disillusionment with life and the music industry. Dan has been axed as the artists-and-repertoire executive from the recording company he helped build, his tastes no longer commercial enough for its new all-business trajectory; and his alcoholic escape from his frustrated idealism has exacerbated his estrangement from his music journalist wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). Gretta had come from London as singer-songwriter collaborator with her longtime boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine), only to find herself jilted when in quick succession he has an affair and is seduced by an opportunity for solo fame.
Carney returns the narrative to the present, poising Gretta and Dan on the cusp of emotional and artistic rebirth. They need a hit, and even more crucially they need to prove to themselves and the world that they are alive, creating, and moving on. Dan’s old label isn’t interested in signing Gretta, so she and Dan hit on a plan just wacky enough to elicit montage sequences from Carney that afford some great shots of the city and jazz up the film’s pace: they record an album live in outdoor venues around the city, the songs captured in alleys, on rooftops, in Central Park, in subway stations.
Though there’s not much meat on the bones of the character, Gretta is a good role for Knightley. She’s much more convincing as a contemporary, savvy, resilient singer-songwriter than as the heroines of some of those classic novel adaptations and other period pieces in which she often seemed, both physically and vocally, somehow anachronistic. She looks comfortable here, her singing voice is sweet if unremarkable, and her Gretta has believable spunk. Mark Ruffalo proves again that he’s one of our most likeable screen presences; even when Dan is at his most rumpled and self-indulgent, the actor’s lopsided grin assures us that his character is readily redeemable. Ruffalo’s passion and sense of fun are easily triggered and hugely infectious—and they are the most reliable keynote in Carney’s efforts to sustain the film’s tone of hopeful determination.
Keener, as she so often does, suggests more for her character than is scripted, and Levine not only has authenticity as a self-absorbed rock-star but rounds the role out with some interesting depth and coloring. The musical performances are pleasing enough, the songs (written by various artists, primarily Gregg Alexander) all of the earnest chamber pop variety—rather like homogenized versions of the Sam Phillips or Aimee Mann ilk. A couple, including Levine’s powerfully emotional number in the film’s last scene, have some real heft.
Begin Again demands little from viewers and viewers might be well-advised to return the favor. It’s light entertainment, has a lot going for it, and is just classy enough not to overplay its hand.
– Hadley Hury
(Available on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other streaming sites)