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Friday, June 27, 2014

Begin Again Review: Great Music Gets Lost in the Meh

The musical-romance Begin Again dares you to divorce it with its snails pace.

One of my favorite 'musical-romance' films is High Fidelity. The story about a record store owner and his eclectic collection of employees, it's where I reconnected with Stevie Wonder, and where audiences probably saw Jack Black for the first time. And while I forgive them for failing to highlight Rush, Yes, and King Crimson, its timeless tale of people searching for love is an instant go-to classic. Unfortunately, Begin Again isn't nearly as endearing, wallowing in its own pool of self-pity, and merely easing the pain with a variety of really great music.

Singer/songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley) has come to America with her boyfriend and aspiring musician Dave (Singer Adam Levine) to get his career on track. Almost immediately, he attains success partially due to Gretta's songwriting. Unfortunately, she is soon without Dave due to his infidelity and finds herself in a bar performing in front of an indifferent crowd, save one. That person is Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a former record executive who's drinking problems and willingness to take wild chances with the company has left him without a job. As he attempts to sign an unwilling Gretta and get his old job back, Dan must also deal with his estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and wife (Catherine Keener), whose dark secret put him in this situation in the first place.

The main problem with Begin Again is its molasses-like plot and pacing, dripping with each sigh of Knightley's depressing situation and extending many scenes instead of giving them a trim. While I've grown to dislike her mousy performances - especially when you consider that the project was to have starred Scarlett Johansson instead - her problem isn't her singing. Knightley has that part down, but all of the songs are post-recorded, missing a golden opportunity at growing the film organically. Blame this on Writer/Director John Carney - a veteran of do-it-yourself independents - who just misses the mark by not knowing when to quit, a common problem with most independents. Carney wants us so badly to love his characters that he keeps them doing banal things like showering, shaving, and showing the beginning three different ways, where only two were needed.

Where Carney does succeed is in his choice of Steinfeld, who is terrific along with Ruffalo, whose ease and ability to turn on the rage goes far beyond Avengers. He's a damaged soul looking for an anchor, which doesn't necessarily become the music. His shattered marriage has left him seeking any stability, and Carney does a good job of leaving Ruffalo to tell that story in any way he wants, his disheveled appearance and drinking issues covering a world of pain and regret for not being a good enough father. Every other supporting character is merely thin paper here, but some performances - such as James Corden as Steve - are just funny enough to keep things from getting suicidal.

And then there's the soundtrack, a mix of Knightley-sung originals and classics. In my opinion, the soundtrack might live on far longer than the film, due entirely to its well-manicured selections. Levine is an incredible singer, and so his arena-rock presence gives a nice balance to Knightley's home-spun tones. But when a film gets dangerously close to losing your approval, making even the music seem unlikable, that's a clear indication that something strayed along the way. The way the ending plays out will make you want to take Gretta to the side to teach her the economics of survival. The smattering of applause with the test audience during the credits was more like a polite way of saying, "That's nice, dear." rather than an endorsing Gretta's actions or Carney's final version.

Begin Again has all the pieces to be the next High Fidelity. Unfortunately, its plot drags and leaves us almost hating the experience. Against giant transforming robots, kaiju, and time-traveling X-men, Begin Again doesn't stand a chance. It's rated R for language and has a runtime of 104 minutes.

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Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


Aaron Jones June 27, 2014 at 9:32 PM  

I must thank you for the shout-out to three of my favorite bands, King Crimson, Yes and Rush!

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