BOTTOM LINE: Offbeat romantic comedy that respectfully explores the roots of human joy and sorrow.
After taking a slight departure from their usual “type” with Hanna, Focus Features’ latest offering takes them back to what they’re known for: quiet, charming dramas. Directed by Mike Mills, Beginners is similar to other indies like A Serious Man and 500 Days of Summer in that it derives poignance from focusing more on how character and structure interact than plot.
Beginners tells the tale of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a withdrawn artist dealing with the recent death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), and the shocking news his father announced shortly before he died: that he was gay. The film intercuts between Oliver’s life with his father during the late stages of his cancer and his life after the death, when he meets a drifting actress, Annie (Melanie Laurent), and tries to piece together a healthy relationship with her with the help of his father’s spunky talking dog. Their fumbling efforts to make things work in spite of themselves parallels Hal’s burgeoning happiness as he approaches death with his unknowing lover, the childlike Andy (Goran Visnjic), at his side.
This film is equal parts comedy, romance, and drama. If you’re looking for something uplifting and optimistic, Beginners is for you. It’s a realistic feel-good story. Mills is a talented filmmaker — he manages to tie together the conflicting emotions in the story and deliver something artsy and patient, yet cute enough that mainstream audiences will smile and sigh wistfully as the sappy ending unfolds. The characters are lovable, especially the little terrier, who provides much-needed comic relief at the right moments with his blunt, subtitled thoughts.
At some points the preciousness the film aims for feels a little stale. Oliver and Annie’s first meeting (set at a costume party, when she comments — on a notepad, because she has laryngitis — that he looks sad) is your standard meet cute: cheesy, saccharine, and cliche. The rest of the film is peppered with many more lazy scenes (skateboarding down the street, eating food truck tacos, etc.) meant to make us root for the dysfunctional couple. Most movies would receive passes for these moments, but I expected a little more from something so otherwise earnest.
What Beginners does have going for it is filmmakers that firmly believe in their message: that it’s never too late to start living. The characters are very real, and their emotions are handled with honesty and care by both the writers and the actors. Plummer is particularly delightful as Hal. His boundless joy is infectious and lends a spirit that, coupled with Laurent’s quirkiness and McGregor’s sincerity, serves as the film’s backbone. We easily empathise with their characters as they search for purpose in their personal lives, but still understand where their stories fit into the bigger picture.
Unusual L.A. landmarks provide an offbeat backdrop for the characters’ adventures, and a whimsical, moody score nicely adds depth to the film’s bright, glossy finish.