Silver Screen: Begin Again ***1/2
John Carney has a particular niche cornered. The writer and director earned acclaim and Oscar attention for the subdued musical Once, a romance about a pair of singer/songwriters who project their affections through the tunes they craft. The performers, real-life couple Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, split shortly after the movie’s breakout success.
Carney’s latest is a low-key musical about a singer/songwriter recently split from her partner after he hits it big with a successful movie soundtrack. To work through her feelings, she records an album that becomes the movie’s own soundtrack.
Presumably Carney’s next movie will be about the star of a charming but not-as-good-as-the-last-one musical trying to recapture the old magic by writing a series of songs about it. If that doesn’t work, maybe the songwriter can transform into a tank and shoot dinosaurs or enter a deadly winner-take-all contest in a dystopian future... and then write some songs about it.
Even though Carney’s latest, Begin Again, feels like an attempt to return to form (and established success), it’s awfully pleasant to watch. Costars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo fit perfectly into Carney’s romanticized pseudo-realist version of New York, where even the bad bar shows seem pretty cool and being down on your luck only makes you more attractive. They’re good enough actors to seem easygoing and vulnerable while drinking beers and making uncomfortable introductions in a loud hipster bar, but the otherworldly charisma keeps shining through whatever wrinkled shirt they just threw on. And Knightley can sing to boot.
Before we meet her we hear her play a tune. Greta (Knightley) shyly strums an acoustic guitar and sings to an indifferent crowd in a half-empty bar, but for struggling record label owner Dan (Mark Ruffalo), it’s the light at the end of a long, dark day. Drunk, as seems to be his habit, he annoys his estranged teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and has a blowup at work with his more conventional and motivated business partner (Mos Def), who’s threatening to push him out of the label they created together.
When Dan hears Greta’s sparely arranged song, his music-producer instincts kick in and his brain fills in the other parts. A cello, drum set, and piano appear, floating in the air as if played by an invisible band, and Dan imagines the seemingly undistinctive tune as something rich and moving. It’s the movie’s most creative scene— that inventiveness will not reoccur— and it’s also the one time Carney takes us into Dan’s mind and shows proof of the talents the other characters keep swearing he has.
Slightly less inspired is Dan’s alleged stroke of genius to record Greta’s demo record entirely outside on the streets of New York, so that the songs will be inflected with the vibe and ambient noise of the city as a testament to their authenticity. It seems like the kind of idea a college indie-rock band has before they actually try it and realize that people record inside for pretty specific acoustical reasons. But that’s the idea that unites Dan and Greta as they create a band and an album while he struggles to regain his confidence and she plays out a will-she-or-won’t-she with her egomaniacal ex (Adam Levine), whose douchiness is measured by the length of his expanding John Walker Lindh beard.
Begin Again never builds much momentum, but it moves along amiably enough. Perhaps most important, the music is credible, or otherwise all the characters would look like delusional idiots. Knightley and Ruffalo share an improbable chemistry that takes some time to develop, but develop it does, and the supporting cast is aces, especially True Grit’s precocious Steinfeld, James Corden as the enthusiastic sidekick, and Catherine Keener showing a softer edge as Dan’s decidedly un-Catherine Keener-esque ex-wife. Mos Def is always a welcome presence, but his distracting facial hair threatens to upstage Levine’s chia-brand facemask as the movie’s worst beard.
Begin Again and Once are too alike not to compare, and as such, Begin Again is no Once. It’s a little less scrappy, a little too polished, the stakes never high enough to arouse too much interest— not even even from the characters, who never seem terribly worried. Maybe there’s a reason they called it Once. Still, Begin Again is more than just a nice cover of the original.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.