Irish director/screenwriter John Carney caught lightning in a bottle with the 2006 indie hit “Once”. It had charming stars, sincere music, and an overall feel that what you were watching was authentic.
Carney is trying to duplicate that success with “Begin Again”. Instead of a couple falling in love while making music together, Carney wants making music to heal all wounds. Unfortunately, almost every single note is completely off key.
Mark Ruffalo is Dan, a burned out music executive that used to own part of an indie record label with his partner, Saul (Mos Def, using his real name Yasiin Bey in the credits). Dan lives in a crummy, beat down Brooklyn apartment while his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), and daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), still live in the home they shared.
After Dan shows off his stubborn, get-off-my-lawn old man attitude towards popular music, Saul fires him. Dan, already a borderline functioning alcoholic, goes on a 24 hour bender and staggers into a tiny club where he sees Greta (Keira Knightly) perform an acoustic emo number.
The best scene in “Begin Again” happens as Dan watches Greta perform. While she sits alone on a tiny stage, Dan begins to write instrumental accompaniments to her song in his head. Instruments come to life and begin to play behind her as Dan envisions them. The scene does a fantastic job of showing how music can inspire a person.
Sadly, the musical inspiration stops there. All of Greta’s songs are about her recent breakup with Dave (Adam Levine). Greta moved to New York with Dave and since he’s about to be a huge pop superstar, he naturally dumps her. Their story is told via flashbacks which are largely ineffective, mostly because it’s all extremely cliched and Dave is such a whiny weakling that every audience should be happy that Greta is no longer with such a creep.
Greta agrees to let Dan record her music, but they need to get very creative since they are both flat broke. With the help of Troublegum (Cee Lo Green), who is one of Dan’s former label’s stars, they piece together a band and instead of recording in a studio, they go to different places in New York and record every song outdoors.
Carney truly excels at directing these moments, which are more like music videos then anything else. There is no doubt that he has a love of music and everything about it, but the rest of the movie is very pedestrian and Carney could have used some help with the screenplay’s attempts at personal growth.
Keira Knightley, who does all of her own singing, seems comfortable and looks the part, but her vocals don’t move the needle. So much of “Begin Again” hinges on these songs, but the lyrics sound like badly written diary poetry. It makes it difficult to take much of Knightley’s Greta seriously when her songs sound so juvenile, but then she turns around and seems to be wise beyond her years.
The two pop stars, CeeLo Green and Adam Levine, are on each end of the acting spectrum. Green is only in two or three scenes, but is actually very funny and charming. He may score the biggest laugh in the entire movie.
Levine, on the other hand, is horribly stilted and stiff. He looks the same when he’s happy, excited about one of Greta’s new songs, or angry. It doesn’t help that he’s playing a part that is poorly written as a one-note, naive rock star. The songs that he sings are brutally bad as well, sounding like they were specifically written for a 16 year old girl to swoon over.
If “Begin Again” is anything, it is further proof that Mark Ruffalo can carry an entire movie on his shoulders. There are a few extended moments where Ruffalo disappears from the movie, which seem to go on forever and you’re just waiting for him to show up again.
Other than the fact that he is inspired to work on music again, there is no reason for Dan’s wife and daughter to really let this drunken, grumpy slacker back into their lives, which is one of this movie’s massive flaws. Fortunately, Ruffalo is so damn charming and good looking that it’s easy to overlook the common sense failures of “Begin Again”.
It’s impossible to not compare this movie to “Once”, which did a much better job of resonating emotionally with music and characters. The problem with “Begin Again” is that Ruffalo’s Dan isn’t performing any of the songs and Knightley’s songs are all about a guy that she shouldn’t be with anymore.
“Begin Again” is a bit of a disappointing second feature for Carney, especially when it tries to wrap everything up all cute and pretty in the end. It’s a classic example of the sophomore slump, when an artist tries to please everyone and loses the message along the way. This is an album with several skippable tracks, unless they involve Mark Ruffalo.