You've seen it all before. Strictly speaking, Begin Again doesn't have the most original of story lines - movies, specifically romantic comedies and sports movies, have long built their predictable happy endings out of opposites attracting, spinning tales of Disillusioned Person A finding inspiration from Disillusioned Person B, and vice versa. The fact that this film comes with added original music isn't even that much of an innovation - writer-director John Carney did the same thing in Once, his own much-beloved musical romance from 2006. But, for all that, Begin Again remains appealing because it refuses to settle comfortably into any one genre. Funny, dramatic, romantic and platonic, the film navigates its cast of characters with much skill and tenderness.
Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a mess: once a groundbreaking executive of his own indie record label, he's floundering helplessly in a life he no longer recognises. He's alienated his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), and his partner Saul (Yasiin Bey a.k.a. Mos Def) has just fired him. Musically-inclined Greta (Keira Knightley) isn't having all that great a time of it either: she moved to New York with her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), but he's too busy having his head turned by fame and other girls as he hits the big time. When Dan hears Greta singing in a rundown bar, he resolves to make music with her - even if no one else believes he can do it.
When examined in its broadest strokes, Begin Again isn't anything special. There's never any doubt that this story will turn out well, that its protagonists will help each other move out of their dark romantic pasts. Its deliberately quirky-cute plot veers frequently towards the corny and predictable, as Dan and Greta set about making the indie-est of indie albums, guerrilla-style on the streets of New York. Of course they'll meet like-minded, kooky people who help them achieve their goal. And yes, Dan will find a way to bond with Violet in the process, just as Greta figures out just what she wants (or doesn't want) from her relationship with Dave.
But Begin Again is a far better film in its details, largely because Carney lavishes a lot of thought, love and hope on his characters. Dan, for one, grows as the film does, the layers of hurt and anger shrouding him and his bad choices slowly peeling away to reveal the damaged soul hiding beneath. There's even something unexpectedly rich about the interaction between Greta and stereotypical bastard boyfriend Dave: he is every bit the jerk he appears on screen, and yet, Carney lends credence to their relationship with some genuinely emotional moments, anchored by a song she writes for him (Lost Stars). Greta's time with Dave, Carney seems to suggest, is not wasted, even if her trust in him might be misplaced. That's an unusually complex thought for a film that's so apparently slight.
The way the film ends, too, comes as a welcome surprise. Unlike the more vapid rom-coms for which it might be easily mistaken, Begin Again chooses to focus on a deeper kind of love story. The love that Dan and Greta eventually share is of a pleasingly unique kind - a connection that isn't romantic or, at least, not purely so. They are also friends and kindred spirits: relationships that typically get short shrift the moment a guy and a girl are placed in the same scene together.
Having scored a hit with Once, Carney can now afford big-name Hollywood actors. Fortunately, he also chose A-list actors who have quite enough skill and charisma to make the hokier parts of the script work. Ruffalo again manages to lend Dan, a generally rumpled mess of rage, his own innate charm and sweetness. Even at his most reprehensible, Dan - in Ruffalo's hands - feels more like a lost soul than an unforgivable one. Knightley makes up for her less-than-arresting singing voice with her most sympathetic performance in ages. James Corden turns in an amusing performance as Greta's hapless panhandling friend Steve, although Keener - a fine character actress - is robbed of the opportunity to lend Miriam more depth (especially considering a revelation that comes later in the film).
Better in its execution than conception, Begin Again is an amiably tough-minded twist on a plot you've seen a thousand times before. The film never really reaches spectacular heights, nor does it re-invent the wheel. But it's a smart, sweet and mostly very effective take on a story that could have been a hundred times more predictable and cloying. That, in itself, is quite the achievement.
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