Begin Again (★★★½)

begin_againIf you’ve been waiting for another movie to come along that comes close to capturing the magic of Once, then Begin Again just might be what you’ve been waiting for. John Carney, the writer/director of both films, has crafted something so overwhelmingly lovely that the folks who normally avoid all the summer blockbusters due to their lack of heart (or overabundance of giant transforming aliens) might be able to throw up their hands and say “Finally a summer movie for the rest of us”, especially considering the competition this weekend. I know I sort of wanted to say that once I saw this winner of a musical/dramedy hybrid, much as it may sound reductive. Too often this sort of movie gets buried at another point in the season, so I’m thrilled it’s getting a chance to spread its wings and fly, so to speak. Carney hasn’t quite blown me away like he did with Once, but this is an excellent flick, featuring strong turns from Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Both are getting to play against type and let loose in a way, which shows in their charming and eye opening performances. I don’t have many complaints about this movie, besides maybe the fact that it’s not still called Can a Song Save Your Life?, but if that’s my main quibble, that means this is a top notch film. Begin Again is one of my favorites of the year so far.

When we first meet Dan (Ruffalo) and Greta (Knightley), they’re first meeting each other while the latter is singing. She’s just finished an acoustic song in a bar with and indifferent audience and he has basically appeared out of nowhere. We then flash back to find out how they both got there. Dan is a disgraced music executive who used to be someone special but now is pretty much just an alcoholic. Divorced from Miriam (Catherine Keener), looked at with disdain by his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), broke, and disgusted with the music currently out there, he’s on the verge of suicide when he hears Greta sing. He imagines a band behind her and is inspired for the first time in ages. When he attempts to sign her, she initially resists and we find out why. Greta is a recent transplant to New York City, having come with her now famous musician boyfriend/songwriting partner Dave (Adam Levine) but now alone since he’s gone out on the road and seemingly forgotten about her. They’re lost souls and Dan’s desire to make a record of Greta’s songs inspires them both. Soon, they’re trying something new, recording an album live in different parts of the city with some likeminded individuals. People come in and out of their lives, but the music and the making of it really does the inspiring. It’s not overly complicated stuff when you get right down to it, but it is quite effectively done.

beginFreed from costume dramas, Keira Knightley proves quite adept at playing a modern character. Allowed to play a bit of a jerk at times, Mark Ruffalo shows off a side we rarely see from him. Both of them are very good here, with strong partner chemistry that makes their interactions even more fun than you’re expecting them to be. Knightley is as good as she’s ever been in my book, while Ruffalo is up there too. Neither has a flashy part, but both do a lot with the characters they’ve been given by Carney. At one point I was concerned that one or both would look out of their element, but that certainly didn’t turn out to be the case here. Adam Levine frankly starts off pretty weakly here, but he improves as the film goes along and his final scene is actually rather strong, I must say. Hailee Steinfeld hits rebellious youth effectively, while Catherine Keener is solid, if a bit under utilized. Other supporting parts include Mos Def as Dan’s industry partner, Cee Lo Green as a musician indebted to Dan, as well as the likes of James Corden and others. Steinfeld is an effective supporting player and Levine surprised me, but this picture totally belongs to Knightley and Ruffalo. They take the ball and very capably run with it.

Carney has a slightly more polished look on display here than with Once, but this is still a low-hi project for the most part. Carney’s writing is clever enough and his direction is inventive when it comes to music, so I’m pleased to report that he should have another crowd pleaser on his hands. Well paced, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome and never bores you. The original songs are all catchy and believable as potential hits, so this should also be a pretty popular soundtrack, provided the movie crosses over to mainstream audiences, of course. I for one sure hope that it does. Audiences deserve something like this, as opposed what they usually get in the month of June. Partnering with producer Judd Apatow will hopefully get this one out there.

Awards wise, this will have an uphill battle with the Academy, though I could see the Golden Globes citing it in a few different places. With Oscar, the best chance will be in Best Original Song, but as we all know, that’s a total crapshoot. The movie deserves some kind of recognition, so hopefully it gets seen and manages to pop up here and there during the precursors. My fingers are crossed at least on behalf of Begin Again.

To sum up, Begin Again is a really fun little musical of a movie that hopefully will manage to get seen, as opposed to a certain giant blockbuster based on a line of toys. I know that I’m fighting a losing battle, but it shouldn’t be that way. With strong lead performances, catchy tunes, and an overwhelming feeling of loveliness that permeates nearly every frame, it’s hard to go wrong with this one. Begin Again is one of my favorites of the first half of 2014 and if you go out and see it, I suspect you might feel the same way as well.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!