Begin Again, filmmaker John Carney’s musically minded feature length follow-up to the genuinely charming Irish sleeper hit Once, has all the energy, talent, and drive of a dire, out of tune cover band that has deluded itself quite terribly into thinking all its members are swaggering rock and roll gods and goddesses. Its hokey faux-inspirational bent might have worked if there was even the slightest bit of deviation to the “making it on your own in a cutthroat industry” handbook that Cameron Crowe staked (and nearly lost) his entire career on several times over. It’s also very poorly made, there are only two genuinely good performances that are passable at best, and perhaps most inexcusable of all, the songs aren’t very catchy, memorable, or insightful. It’s on-the-nose pap that’s a waste of time and celluloid except for those who are really, REALLY easily amused or who have never seen a film before in their lives. (Neither of which I begrudge, mind you, but I would urge those people to actually get out a lot more often.)
Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) has hit rock bottom. A former hotshot record executive, he has just been ousted from the position afforded to him by being his company’s co-founder because he has become an alcoholic, egotistical wreck of his former self. His teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife (Catherine Keener) can barely tolerate him. After a particularly rough night, Dan makes his way to an open mic night in one of his drunken stupors to catch Greta (Kiera Knightley), a struggling singer-songwriter from the UK who just broke up with her long term boyfriend and former collaborator (Adam Levine), who has now become a megastar. Dan sees a huge upside to Greta’s music and makes it his mission to use her music to save his career and help her get the recognition she deserves.
It’s glaringly apparent from the opening seconds (following a wildly unnecessary and painfully annoying structural gambit that forces us to watch Dan and Greta’s first meeting three times in 20 minutes) when Dan does the clichéd “getting up in the morning in a fog and running late for work” thing that Carney has positively nothing to offer that hasn’t been done before. Begin Again is a four chord song stuck on endless repeat: crowd pleasing in the emptiest of ways and desperately hoping not to be found out by the audience as a complete fraud and rehash of every inspirational musician film ever made. To a certain degree that would be at the very least passable, but Carney shows a shocking degree of incompetency in the filmmaking department and fares even worse as a writer, making his characters into people who are almost unworthy of praise, redemption, or even anything interesting to say about them.
Carney clearly intends for this production to be an almost funhouse version of what happened to his main characters in Once. They too were seduced by big money and executives who thought only one member of The Swell Season was talented enough to continue in the industry, suffered a horrible and unnervingly public break-up, and only Glen Hansard (surrogated here by Levine) went on to be a star, while Markéta Irglová (surrogated by Knightley) had to start from scratch. Begin Again almost feels like a thinly veiled slap in the face to the positivity expressed in Once, and for the first hour the film uncomfortably brims with the taste of sour grapes. And yet, Carney wants to replicate his own success so he handles this admittedly dark material with a constant shit eating grin that feels unearned. While it’s very easy to sympathize with Greta and her situation, everything around her is so toxic that one wishes she would just leave New York and either get on with her life or end up in a much better movie about starting over.
But taking out of the equation any obvious subtext that makes the film feel a tad bit sleazy and misanthropic for a feel good flick, it’s just a badly made film on its own terms. Carney has no clue where to point a camera or how to shoot a sequence, sometimes bafflingly cutting to reverse shots to film people’s backs as they walk away from the camera only to go right back to the conversation or constantly abusing shaky handheld cameras to try to give his big budget studio production the low key immediacy that Once has to almost laughable effect here. He also can’t find a way to make his film’s time shifting narrative work beyond the opening set up, quickly jettisoning after an hour it even though it feels like key plot points have been excised along the way in favour of keeping these characters as bland and two dimensional as possible.
I haven’t even brought up how asinine the idea is that Dan wants to record Greta’s entire new album outside on the streets of New York and how convenient it all is that the record sounds perfectly mixed while they play along onscreen. Then there’s the matter of the obviously focused grouped and re-shot happy ending, which takes place over the credits (and following an abrupt and admittedly worse ending) like it doesn’t give a shit and it’s only there to finally bring a tiny bit of logic to a story that didn’t have an ending to begin with. This says nothing about how the songs seem like they were written by five year olds instead of professional musicians. I didn’t yet mention how every character with the exception of Greta and Dan are completely superfluous and so underwritten that they might as well never have been in the film to begin with. Seriously, Levine’s character can have his entire existence summed up in a single sentence. He wouldn’t even need to be shown and nothing about the film would remotely change.
My sympathies for Knightley’s character extend to her performance. She’s quite good; warm hearted, realistic, talented, and capable of selling the material. It helps that she has the best all around character in the film, but she’s putting in a genuine effort to look and sound like the real deal. It’s impressive and none of the film’s faults are her doing. Similarly, it’s nice to see British actor James Corden make a great role out of Greta’s best friend. It’s thankless on paper, but the scenes these two actors have together belie a more genuine kind of warmth that the rest of the material sorely lacks.
The usually credible and solid Ruffalo, on the other hand, delivers what might be the most misguided performance of his career. Reduced to motormouthing, casually tossing off curse words, and chewing whatever scenery happens to be around him at any given moment, it borders on being a memorably bad Nicolas Cage performance. That would almost be a positive if his character weren’t such a loathsome, note-for-note rip-off of Jerry Maguire crossed with a stereotypical alcoholic and absentee father. A great deal of the misfire here comes from the writing of the character, but Ruffalo has to also be blamed for going full on manic here. This a depressed man who by all accounts should have lost the chip on his shoulder a decade ago, but he’s still acting like he’s the greatest man alive. The fact that Carney makes him out to be just that is insulting considering how much a trainwreck he is. When the film actually goes out of its way to excuse his absentee fatherhood by saying it’s because his wife cheated on him it comes across as one of the worst excuses for a character to be an asshole ever written.
The rest of the supporting cast is just as sadly hamstrung by the material. The backing band is brought together with possibly the worst montage of a band being brought together since Blues Brothers 2000 (although a bit where a piano player quits in the middle of a ballet recital gave me the one chuckle I got from the film). I still can’t tell you what the hell the point of having Cee Lo in the film was other than to act as a fairy godmother type and deliver the tagline from the film’s poster (a moment so stupid I had to get up and leave the theatre for a few seconds). Steinfeld and Keener, both smart actresses, are given archetypes that are sexistly written and derided at every turn because everything they do makes Dan’s life SO MUCH HARDER FOR HIM. As for Levine, he simply can’t act. Every line to come out of his mouth is delivered in the worst of blank monotones that suggest Keanu Reeves after a lobotomy. Actually, since the character itself shouldn’t even need to be in the film since all he does is waste time and energy, I guess it can’t even really be Levine’s fault that he sucks. It’s not like his director is helping him out at all.
The fault of this failure rests almost entirely on Carney and the somewhat delusional thinking that this could be glossy, feel good baloney. Begin Again has been quietly amassing lots of money since its limited release south of the border a few weeks ago. It might have even made most of its budget back already, assuring its place as a summertime success. It has certainly been successful. It doesn’t deserve to be. It’s actually worse than the Transformers film that has been depressingly running roughshod over everything at the box office the past couple of weekends. That film really sucks, but it makes no pretense about being anything other than a hollow blockbuster designed to make money. (Begin Again, however, is better than last week’s dire rom-com entry Words and Pictures, but not by very much.)
What Begin Again does to audiences is positively insidious. It goes straight for the dopamine receptors while trying to bypass anything else. It has the exact same kind of contempt for the audience that Transformers has. It doesn’t want the audience to think about a single thing that’s happening before their eyes. It’s like being stuck in a darkened room with a third rate hypnotist that’s trying too hard. It lulls you in with seemingly snappy tunes and beaming smiles, all the while acting as ludicrous as possible. I have no problem with feel good films. I’m actually more of a sucker for tearjerkers and rom-coms than most of my critical brethren. This film is a fraud. It’s not made to tell a feel good story. Its faux-indie feel wants you to think that. It’s a film designed to take your money, plain and simple.
But again, it will make a ton of money (relatively speaking, of course). Most audiences won’t care and will probably leave thinking they got what they paid for. That’s fine. They can have it. I will never think of this film again after this point and will cringe any time it’s brought up in polite conversation by someone who obviously had a connection to it on some level that I couldn’t possibly begin to fathom. I’ll politely smile and nod, hope they haven’t read this review, and slowly back away from them or try to change the conversation to anything other than this. You never shame the audience for a film, but it’s getting to a point where we all need to have a serious discussion about what we want from them on both sides of the conversation.