AT LAST, HERE’S a smart, well-written, nicely acted rom-com that’s fun to watch and that doesn’t insult your intelligence. Begin Again traces two stories that merge together. One is of Greta (Keira Knightly), an English writer-singer trying – and failing – to come to grips with a bad breakup and with club crowds unmoved by her singing. The other story is of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a divorced music producer, also failing to come to grips… with his inability to find a new hit, and, according to his partner, Saul (Mos Def, from “Dexter”) to adapt to the times.
Mark is a mess: he’s an embarrassing drunk, his marriage is in shambles and his daughter’s respect for him has disintegrated.
Luckily for him, he staggers into a bar and hears Greta’s lovely and ignored song (sung by Keira herself) about loss and loneliness. He imagines what it could sound like with the right kind of arrangement and pitches the idea to her.
Now here’s where Begin Again veers away from the formulaic clichés of what could well have been a typical Jennifer Anderson/Katherine Heigl “vehicle”. The movie doesn’t quickly slip into rediscovered love or musical redemption (with a few cute kids and klutzy moments thrown in), it uses the set-up of a down in the dumps producer meeting a down in the dumps singer/songwriter to explore issues of authenticity v speciousness, honesty v deception, truth v lies.
Greta’s ex – Dave (first-timer Adam Levine, who also performs his own songs) – is the anti-Greta. She is all artistic integrity and honesty; he is all about the fame and the money. As an audience we’re trained to see pretty early on that he’ll cheat on her. But this isn’t (only) about a man cheating on a woman (or they typical rom-com point of frisson), it’s about the sundering that results when one performer loses his integrity and honesty while the other –Keira- remains (virginally?) authentic.
And as the relationship between Dan (Ruffalo) and Greta tightens, during the recording of her album (all over New York, ambient sounds and all), Dan’s own artistic integrity surfaces. And he is a better person/friend/father/husband for it.
The writing is sharp, and the story tries to be as honest as its theme (within the confines of the form: this is after all a rom-com, not a tragedy). Keira seems, mercifully, to have shed her habit of pouting as her signifier of emotion, and her pain feels genuinely moving. She’s convincing both as a talented singer and as a big sister surrogate to Dan’s daughter, Violet (Halee Steinfeld, so good as Mattie Ross in “True Grit”). Ruffalo is always tremendous; his shaggy good looks suit the role as the disheveled producer. The connection between him and Keira is credible and sparkles, thanks to some nice directing from John Carney (who also wrote).
The principals are well supported by Adam Levine (Keira’s caddish ex), James Corden as Steve, Greta’s other New York-ambitious, unsuccessful English-musician friend, Catherine Keener as Miriam, Dan’s wife and a number of small, pitch-perfect vignettes from the likes of CeeLo Green as a larger than life hip-hop artist, and Mos Def as the producer who has long ago shed any vestige of creative honesty.
There’s also (for me), the other towering superstar in the movie: New York. There it was in all its gritty, gorgeous, throbbing, pulsating, beautiful glory, from Schiller’s to Washington Square Park to the unaccommodating subways.
Of course this was a movie about music, and the music is delightful. Carney cleverly ties in the lyrics of the many songs that make up the track with the ebb and flow of the narrative. Gregg Alexander (from the New Radicals) and Danielle Brisebois (an actress and fellow New Radicals member) co-wrote most of the songs along with Nick Lashley, Rick Nowels, Nick Southwood and even John Carney.
This seems to be the month of strong sound-track, hot on the heels of Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys”.
July has become the month of the hum.