Begin Again Review

Posted: December 24, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

begin_againWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

In 2007, a little film called Once managed to quietly become a major winner with critics thanks to its authenticity, powerful drama, and beautiful music. It may not have dominated year end lists the way movies like There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, or No Country for Old Men did, but the film was among the most thoroughly embraced releases of the year. It seemed writer/director John Carney was set for great things, but he pretty well vanished after Once. The man was involved in a few small projects, but nothing that got any real attention. Carney has made a modest return with Begin Again, a film which, like Once, focuses on relationships and heartbreak with a focus on music. The trailers made the film look like a more mainstream and conventional take on Once’s winning formula, but the reviews were solid, and I was hopeful Carney still had something to say.

Gretta (Keira Knightley) is a British musician who come to New York to with her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), also a musician with a career beginning to really take off. However his success changed their relationship and a recent break-up has rocked Gretta. Her friend Steve (James Corden) hopes that by going out to a bar where he is performing, he’ll be able to get her mind off things. When there, Steve convinces Gretta to sing one of her own sings, which catches the ear of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a former record label executive recently fired from his job. Dan is dealing with a similar lowpoint due to his strained relationship to his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). However Dan is inspired by Gretta’s music and approaches her with the idea of recording an album. She’s skeptical at first, but eventually agrees.

I think the main reason I didn’t seek out Begin Again is because the film looked like a fairly generic indie dramedy, something that the film’s early moments don’t exactly dispute. Early scenes which depict Dan’s lifestyle and his sacking with his record label veer dangerously close to the sort of movie I was afraid Begin Again would be. However these fears ultimately proved unwarranted as this really builds into something special once it finds its groove. Despite the bigger budget and the presence of stars like Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightely, this contains a lot of authenticity and heart. This is in large part thanks to John Carney’s script, which features great dialogue which both sounds real and is very enjoyable to listen to. Carney also builds really strong characters who don’t turn into stereotypes. It would have been easy, for example, to turn Gretta’s ex-boyfriend into a completely unlikable person, and while he does some unsympathetic things, he still retains a lot of humanity and still feels like a dignified character in some respect. Carney also wisely sidesteps clichéd moments a lesser movie would have indulged in. There is a scene for example where Dan and Gretta get into a pretty intense argument, and where most movies would turn this into a twenty minute subplot, here they resolve their conflict quickly and move on to something else (which in this case is one of the movie’s best scenes). There are a lot of little moments like this throughout the film.

Another reason Begin Again works as well as it does is because of the talented cast. The stand outs are of course Knightely and Ruffalo, who are both perfectly cast in their respective roles. Knightely is great as a modest artist who loves what she does without coming off as pretentious. She also sells her more emotional moments very well, performs her own songs with confidence and skill, and generally creates a very likable screen presence. Ruffalo is completely buyable as someone who has confidence and a cool swagger, but also someone in something of a rut he can’t get out off. The two also have great chemistry and perhaps the biggest thrill of the film is watching the two in a scene together. Singer Adam Levine also gives a more nuanced turn than one would expect from someone with so little experience. Catharine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld both do good work and avoid the usual stereotypes of the estranged family, while rappers Mos Def and CeeLo Green do memorable work as well. My biggest surprise though was James Corden, who brings a lot of heart and humour to a fairly small role and does quite well.

One of the most notable elements of Once was the original songs, which were very well-received and one even won an Oscar. I doubt the music of Begin Again will receive the same attention, but perhaps it should. This film features a lot of great original content which is very well-written and utilized very well in the film. Knightely especially performs her songs with a lot of power and they really do resonate. Her performances of original songs, “Lost Stars”, “A Step You Can’t Take Back”, and “Like a Fool” are especially special and among the best moments of the film. Music is also used to reveal aspects of character, such as how Dave’s songs become more heavily produced and lose a lot of their soul. The film also makes great use of pre-existing source music, such as a great scene where Dan and Gretta walk through New York listening to a playlist together.

Begin Again isn’t a perfect film. It has some rough moments early on and a lot of what it does has been done in other music films. Once is the obvious comparison, but even a film as seemingly different as Hustle and Flow hits a lot of the same beats. Still, I can’t deny the warm feeling Begin Again instilled in me. It’s a very humble, charming movie that spots some strong performances and great music. Is it among 2014’s best? No, but’s a very enjoyable watch and a gem of a film that I’d recommend to just about anybody.

A-

Comments
  1. Caz says:

    This was a big surprise package for me this year, wasn’t expecting much from it and totally loved it.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    Good review Dan. The songs are all fine and catchy, but the story’s pretty corny. Still works because of the cast, but man.

    • moviebuff801 says:

      Good review. Right now, it’s looking like this will make my Best of the Year list for 2014, and it’s certainly well-deserved.

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