Sunday, July 13, 2014

One Hit Wonder: BEGIN AGAIN

Late in Begin Again, a songwriter talks to her rock star ex-boyfriend and boils down the trouble with their failed relationship to a matter of production on a track off of his debut album. She disappointedly tells him that he’s turned what she wrote as a simple ballad into an overproduced piece of arena rock. Her song, she says, has been “buried in the mix.” She may as well be talking about the movie, which has at its core a small, sweet nugget of an idea and proceeds to thoroughly bury it under treacly artifice. It’s a movie about creative inspiration, about how the act of creating music helps its creators work through issues in their personal lives and find friendships and purpose through producing something beautiful to share with the world. Too bad, then, that a movie about the magic of creativity shows so little imagination.

To make matters worse, writer-director John Carney made a movie that did all of the above, that cut straight to the heart of the matter and moved people with its beautiful simplicity and great music. It was 2007’s Once, a Dublin street singer Brief Encounter, a lovely little bittersweet romantic musical. Its leads, musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, poured their hearts out into open performances that ache with pain and transcendence as their musically inclined characters form meaningful connections through song. They won a well-deserved Best Original Song Oscar for their efforts. It’s a movie that made a virtue out of its limited resources by creating deeply felt characters living simple lives made better by letting them become the fuel for their artistic endeavors.

Now here’s Carney’s Begin Again, which plays similar notes, but ends up with little worth listening to. There’s a shyly talented young singer/songwriter (Keira Knightley) who reluctantly performs a song in a New York dive bar at which her friend (James Corden) is playing a gig. An alcoholic record producer (Mark Ruffalo) freshly fired from his indie label hears her. He approaches her and demands to help her record an album. She eventually gives in. Since his former colleague (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def) won’t bankroll the project, the two of them set out to recruit some session musicians willing to work for nothing and then find authenticity by recording her songs on the street – and in an alley, on top of a skyscraper, in the subway, and all manner of “real” New York locales. It’s a straightforward idea. The montages of the band coming together have a pleasant charge and the leads are charming. But the movie lets them down.

This simple concept is loaded up with emotional baggage straight out of the Hollywood melodrama bargain bin. Ruffalo has an ex-wife (Catherine Keener) who he still loves, and a distant teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) who wears clingy shirts and tight short shorts because (as actually stated out loud in a movie in 2014) she needs a father figure more present and encouraging in her life. Knightley has that rocker ex (Adam Levine of Maroon 5) and a flashback charting their relationship. We also meet several flat, largely superfluous, side characters including a successful musician of some sort who is played by Cee Lo Green. You’d think he’d have a song or two, but no. He’s here for a scene and a half of exposition and that’s it. (I guess the movie can claim it has half of the judges from NBC’s singing competition The Voice.) There’s no sense that any of these characters have weight. They talk about their backstories and their feelings, but they don’t wear them. The cast is made up of fine actors (and Adam Levine). To the extent that it works at all – and it does, for a minute or two here and there – it’s because of them, but they can’t sell such thin material all on their own.

It’s shot with an earnest, up-tempo glossiness, and it’s watchably amiable. But the movie is simply unconvincing. There’s a scene in which two people listen to a song on headphones in the middle of a crowded nightclub. How could they possibly hear it? Later, a woman reads the back of a CD’s case while listening to the music on an iPod. Two industry professionals call Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra “guilty pleasures.” The dramatic resolution of the making-an-album plotline plays out as a credit cookie and is a self-flattering ode to the magical hit-making power of the Internet. These small, bungled details pile up and distract. But at least being so phony helps throw its sappy triteness into stark relief. The more it insists on the creative powers of its characters, the less awareness it shows. It’s a reductive sort of movie that claims to be about inspiration while having none of it.

At one point, a character tells Ruffalo, “this isn’t Jerry Maguire,” which only goes to remind the audience how skilled Cameron Crowe is at blending music and drama into something transcendent, a skill Carney had with Once but is lacking here. Still, the songs, written by Carney and collaborators, are mostly nice and inoffensive to the ear. The ensemble has chops (or fakes them well enough) and the songs are at worst the kind of pleasant guitar-and-piano fare you’d hear as background noise in a Starbucks. The least of the lyrics are overly stretching in a moody middle-schooler sort of way. A low-light: “Yesterday I saw a lion kiss a deer / Turn the page and maybe we’ll find a brand new ending / When we’re dancing in our tears.” Yeezus, that’s bad. At least the melodies and arrangements go down easy, and Knightley’s enough of a charmer to disguise those words on first listen. In such a flimsy dramedy, the songs are never more than welcome distraction to the grinding gears of plot mechanics. They’re just more missed opportunities in a film that proves lightning rarely strikes twice.

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