The title of director John Carney's new film, Begin Again, is technically a reference to an at-the-crossroads moment in the lives of its principal protagonists, played by Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. But it might as well be a reference to Carney himself. A Dubliner and onetime bassist for the Irish band The Frames, Carney struck gold in 2007 with the musical romantic dramedy Once, one of the most winsome, satisfying movies of the decade. Made for less than $200,000, most of which was supplied by the Irish Film Board, the film was an unanticipated hit that went on to win an Oscar for Best Song and was later spun off into a Tony-Award-winning musical.
Carney has directed one other feature film since—Zonad, about a prison escapee who persuades an Irish town that he's an extraterrestrial—but Begin Again is essentially an effort to recapture the musical magic of Once with a bigger budget, larger stars, and the drowsy charm of Dublin replaced by the megawattage of New York City. It's an effort that is intermittently successful, though ultimately something is lost in translation.
The movie opens in a small subterranean club, where Gretta (Knightley) is reluctantly persuaded by a friend to take the stage and play a song she’s written. As she strums her acoustic and sings her melancholy lines, glassware clinks noisily and conversations continue unabated. (Shades of Diane Keaton's "It Had to Be You" performance in Annie Hall.) When Gretta finishes, the audience’s response is tepid at best—save for that of one man, Dan (Ruffalo), who claps his mitts forcefully, a maniacal grin plastered on his face. (He is, as we will soon learn, blotto.)
From here, the film rewinds to tell the stories of how it is that Dan and Gretta came to be in that particular club on that particular night. Dan, once a superstar indie record producer, has seen his life fall into shambles. He’s dead broke, degenerately alcoholic, and estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and his teenaged daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Hearing Gretta play at the club was the culmination of a daylong bender following his firing from the very record label he helped found. Gretta, meanwhile, had arrived in New York months earlier with her romantic and songwriting partner, Dave (Adam Levine of the band Maroon Five). Dave had just made the big time with a few songs on a hit soundtrack, and he does not wind up wearing success lightly. (In one of the movie’s better jokes, Dave’s ascending assholery correlates exactly with his accumulating facial hair.)
So Dan, the down-and-out producer, meets Gretta, the jilted singer/songwriter, and the two decide to (literally) make beautiful music together. There are some complications along the way (Dan’s relationship with Violet, Gretta’s with Dave) and a delicate will-they-or-won’t-they balance to be maintained over the course of the duo’s unfolding quasi-romance. But in the end, Begin Again, like Once before it, is about two people putting a record together—albeit somewhat higher up on the music-industry food chain.
As such, one’s response to the movie is likely to track pretty strongly with one’s response to the music, which recalls the indie-folk vibe of Once, albeit in a gentler, easier-listening way. This is in large part because most of the songs in Carney’s previous film were sung with zealous gusto by his old Frames bandmate Glen Hansard, and most of the songs in this film are sung by Keira Knightley. Her voice is perfectly passable, but rather than seem Transported by the Power of Music, she not infrequently appears to be Trying Hard Not to Screw Up. (Her casting as an uncompromising indie artiste was always going to be tricky, but she pulls it off better than one might expect.)
Lacking the money for a studio, Dan and Gretta decide to record their album on the streets and rooftops and subway platforms of New York, in what the movie defines as a bid for “authenticity” but the rest of us will recognize as a “gimmick.” (It’s one that is not improved by Dan’s suggestion that the album will be an ode to “This beautiful, crazy, fractured city,” nor by the dubious decision to record one of the songs in a rowboat on Central Park Lake.) Indeed, the movie is moderately obsessed with the ideal of authenticity—Dan and Gretta discuss it on several occasions—which is a rather awkward position for this particular work of art to champion. It is, after all, a calculatedly more-commercial, less-authentic variation on a movie that Carney had already made. (A related quibble: The film makes a very big deal about Gretta’s nobility in deciding to sell her album online for just one dollar; the movie soundtrack will, in fact, set you back $9.99 on iTunes.)
Is it unfair to judge Begin Again against the standard set by Once? Perhaps. Taken on its own merits, Carney’s latest, despite its occasional detours into schmaltz and corniness, is an eminently likable movie populated with eminently likable characters. CeeLo Green is charming as a CeeLo-Green-like artist whom Dan helped make a star; Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) has a good turn as Dan’s longtime partner at the label, and James Corden has another as Gretta’s busker buddy. And we see far too little of Rob Morrow as a skeezily pony-tailed record producer.
For those in the mood for a lighthearted musical diversion, in other words, Begin Again is a perfectly reasonable bet. But Carney hit the nail on the head more precisely than he could have known with the title of his earlier film. Lightning strikes once. Not twice.
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