Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a shaggy-haired, chain-smoking, alcoholic divorced dad with a broken dream of running his own record label. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is a down-on-her-luck young New York émigré with a song in her heart and a battered past of her own. Begin Again is less about the new beginning these two lonely city dwellers find, and more about coming to terms with previous endings. Light on plot and heavy on stubbly Mark Ruffalo grins, Begin Again is perfect for a solo movie night.
From writer/director John Carney, Begin Again is essentially the bubble gum pop version of Inside Llewyn Davis. Unlike Once or Rent it’s not a musical translated to film; it’s a music-based movie. Unfortunately, not many of the songs are very good. It could be because my music taste falls somewhere between Taylor Swift and Maroon 5, so it’s possible hardcore pop fans will love the partially lackluster tunes. Adam Levine (who plays Knightley’s erstwhile rocker boyfriend) lends the only star power that can turn these nauseating melodies mesmerizing. This is also Levine’s film debut. If only he were as virtuoso an actor as well. However, he makes up for it with a range of facial hair styles, growing bushier with each ego-bloating accomplishment. Extra celeb points for a cameo by CeeLo Green, whose freestyle rap almost tops Britney Spears’ performance in Crossroads.
A cheesy wet dream of New York City unfolds scene after unrealistic scene. Dan and Gretta decide to record an album in public locations all around the city. They’re not shooting for lifelike, but if you work in the recording industry, or have ever tried to put an album together, this movie might hurt your teeth a little. This is the NYC that only exists in movies, where if bad things happen, you can jump on a bike in your vintage dress and pretty lights will swirl behind you; send sentimental snail mail; or leave a voicemail recording of your own original song about how your ex should eff off.
Catherine Keener plays Dan’s ex-wife, and as the two doing most of the acting in the movie, their charisma is boundless. I found myself wishing they’d simply end up together, especially for the sake of their young guitar-playing daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). Feminists will not appreciate this movie for its blatant slut-shaming. Gretta tells Dan’s daughter that she dresses like she’s easy, affirming Dan’s statement from a previous scene. Eventually she caves and wears a pencil skirt instead of short shorts, and trades her chunky black platforms for tan espadrilles. Clearly, much better. Hey, Dan, you know the top two buttons of your shirt fasten as well, right? Dan calls Gretta a “tomboy” even though her fashion sense belongs to no tomboy I’ve ever seen: billowy linen pants and lovely gingham shirts that, while not tomboyish, are fun to look at.
Case in point: the first time Dan sees Gretta, performing at an open mic just after she’s left her boyfriend, we watch Ruffalo’s face for a gratuitous 30 seconds or so, gazing at Knightley, then cut briefly to Knightley’s face, then back to Ruffalo. (Apparently that really is Knightley singing, though. The songs might be bland but her pipes ain’t half bad.) In movies, it still seems that watching a man watching a woman is supposed to be more interesting than seeing a female character actually doing something. Don’t expect this typical story to be told from a perspective that is out of the ordinary. It’s very much the trope of a screwed-up guy meeting a broken girl. If you want to turn your brain off with a bottle of Zinfandel and start to notice just how much Adam Levine really does look and act a lot like your own ex, and how you could totally be a singer-songwriter, this is the weeknight flick for you.
Begin Again hits theaters July 11.