Begin Again, the latest film from Once director John Carney, opens in a bar where we see Gretta (Keira Knightley) perform her song. In a typical bar setting, some people keep talking amongst themselves, laughing at their own jokes and being what would be considered disrespectful if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re all in a bar. But in the midst of the half focused crowd, one man seems to be getting it. Drunk and scraggly Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) seems to see something in her. We then learn he’s a record label executive who seems to be having problems of his own. After this brief stint at the bar, we then “begin again,” starting the day over and seeing how these two came to be at this bar at this particular time. Gretta’s struggling musical career and Dan’s struggling label career collide as they come up with an idea to help each other out. What follows is a really good example of a feel good movie that never becomes sappy in its ambitions. It’s a beautiful film.
Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are Alright, Marvel’s The Avengers, The Normal Heart) is excellent as Dan, a character I really latched onto. Ruffalo, who has been taken under shelter by the Marvel label in his critically acclaimed role of the Hulk, shows he can simultaneously do other things as well. With this and his performance in The Normal Heart (which has garnered him an Emmy nomination already), Ruffalo continues to prove himself an actor capable of various genres. He’s a true talent. Keira Knightley may just be the most beautiful actress working today. Quote me on that one. And it shows here. She’s absolutely stunning (in looks and performance both) as this singer/songwriter who just wants her voice to be heard. Screw the corporate giants. She wants to do her own thing. And what she and Ruffalo decide to do is unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie before. It was cool, sweet, funny, and endlessly entertaining to see where they were going to go next. Maroon 5 vocalist Adam Levine does a fine job at standing around and being “the guy from Maroon 5,” but when the script calls for him to be dramatic, he brings the drama. It’s nothing award worthy and he never meets the quality of the two leads, but he does a fine job and quite better than one would expect from a singer-turned actor. Mos Def provides one of my problems with the film and that is that I felt his character was a bit too Hollywoodized and his performance didn’t help things either. The scenes inside the record label studio were the weaker aspects of the movie as Def’s character seemed to be just a cardboard cutout of a standard musical movie bad guy. Not that he was even a “bad guy.” He was just the cliched record label owner who always shoots down our lead character’s great music. The scene stealing performance is that of James Corden. Virtually every scene he’s in features comedic gold, whether it be dialogue or simply his character’s awkwardness. Either way, he was a great addition to the film.
Director John Carney’s 2006 film Once took the world by storm. Personally, I adored everything about that movie. It was dramatic when it needed to be, heartwarming, it ended on a perfect note, and most of all, it had remarkably memorable songs. After watching Once, I immediately purchased the soundtrack and still find myself listening to the songs from time to time because they are just that great. Take the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly,” for example. When that song was performed in the movie, it brought tears to my eyes. What a powerful film Once was. Begin Again is different. The songs aren’t as memorable as those in Once, but instead it’s the character to character moments. Once was a musical. Begin Again, while labeled as a musical, is really just a movie told through music. It’s not the same. Begin Again has great moments throughout between its characters, and Carney really has a fascination with telling a story through the beauty of music. You could say it’s a flaw of the film that it feels a bit too much like Once in setting up its characters (and the way it ends.) Both Knightley and Ruffalo have struggling relationships and with certain things that happen throughout the course of the movie comparisons could be made. I didn’t mind it. I cared about these characters. I even cared about Dan’s daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), who started off a little rocky until I eventually got into her character. Carney’s script has wonderful moments that really stuck with me and they’re all directed with great care. The scene where Dan and Gretta go through Times Square listening to music through headphones together is personally my favorite scene in the film. It was beautiful.
The movie starts off a little offbeat with the meeting at the bar and then restarting the day twice for each character, but once you get there and get used to it, it’s no problem at all. The way Carney sets things up and lets them play out results in a wonderful movie that is perfect for anyone who wants a feel good movie to lift their spirits. Ruffalo and Knightley are great on their own and together strike wonderfully appealing chemistry, Adam Levine is fine as “the guy from Maroon 5,” James Corden is hilarious in every scene, and John Carney gives us reasons to care about his characters through his writing and direction. It’s a bit of a shame that they took the typical musical route and performed the music in a studio (as opposed to Once, which was mostly performed on set) but that doesn’t lessen the quality. The music is great. The drama is greater. I kinda loved this movie.
Begin Again (2014) Rated R for language. Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, Adam Levine. Writer: John Carney. Director: John Carney.