I finally got a chance to see Begin Again tonight, the musical dramedy written and directed by John Carney creator of indy smash Once. With the current dearth of romantic comedies I was looking forward to this movie and while it is not terrible I was disappointed.
Keira Knightley as Gretta James, a songwriter
Mark Ruffalo as Dan Mulligan, a music producer
Adam Levine as Dave Kohl, Gretta’s ex-boyfriend and a successful musician
Catherine Keener as Miriam Hart, Dan’s estranged wife
Hailee Steinfeld as Violet Mulligan, Dan and Miriam’s daughter
James Corden as Steve, Gretta’s best friend
CeeLo Green as Troublegum, a successful rapper who was discovered by Dan
Mos Def as Saul, Dan’s long-time business partner
Spoiler Alert! I will discuss some details of the movie.
Begin Again has a lot in common with Once. Both movies are about new artists, one male, one female, that are idealistic and pure believers in music and them creating their first album.
But there are some big key differences.
First, I’m sorry but the songs in Once are just better. I did not believe any of the songs in Begin Again were legitimate hits where Once had several including the actual hit Falling Softly (and Oscar winner for Best Original Song) .
The songs in Once were so good they could be used to make a Tony winning broadway musical. You couldn’t do that with the Begin Again songs, and since the whole point of the movie is that Kiera Knightly’s songs are somehow so brilliant it doesn’t feel genuine.
Second, the singing isn’t as good. Mark Ruffalo doesn’t actually sing like Glen Hansard does in Once and Kiera Knightly is not nearly as good a singer as Marketa Irglova. All of the songs are written with a small range and she still doesn’t sound very good. Certainly nothing that would make a record executive stop in a drunken stupor and drop all and work with this ‘amazing’ talent.
Third, in Once the ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ are so likable despite not having names. In both movies they are in love with music and not really each other but it comes off so much more of a real and meaningful relationship in Once.
Part of the problem is that Ruffalo is such a mess that I didn’t like him or find him charming. In fact, there was a side of me that was nervous for Knightley’s character that he might take advantage of her (borderline creepy persona). Knightly was bland, niave and kind of preachy about people who actually want to make a career out of music (the shame!). I found her to be a little insufferable.
In Once ‘Girl’ has a child which gives her warmth and keeps you rooting for her. In Begin Again Ruffalo is estranged from his daughter played quite well by Hailee Steinfeld. When we first meet him he picks his daughter up clearly inebriated. This makes me instantly dislike him, where in Once I love the characters who are trying so hard for the chance to record. Ruffalo is an executive who has blown his chance and is fired. It’s not as motivating a character arc and we don’t see as much growth.
Fourth, in Once they are shown practicing so they are ready for the big recording session. They practice outside, in apartments, piano stores etc. In Begin Again the conceit is that they are going to screw the traditional recording studio and record an album in New York live.
It is an absolutely laughable idea that a releasable album could be filmed in and around the city of New York in one or two takes and with all back up willing to work for free! We officially cross the line into a fairytale with scenes of recording in the Subway and officers ‘catching’ them mid song and them running away. You can actually get permits to play in the New York Subway but the idea that a band of that size could get all the amps and everything set up and then record a track and then the cops come? Give me a break!
Maybe it isn’t fair to compare it to its younger, fairer cousin but when you have the same director, writer and a nearly identical premise it’s tough not too. Begin Again is just not as good. It feels like a lame sequel where they just kind of spew out a weaker version of the original. It’s not offensively awful and people are trying but why settle for sloppy seconds when you can easily enjoy the real deal first course?
The only part that surprised me about Begin Again is Adam Levine as Knightley’s rock star boyfriend isn’t half bad. In the world of musicians turned actors he is pretty engaging on screen. Granted he is playing a rock star which isn’t much a stretch but certainly other stars haven’t been able to pull off similar feats as well. He has the one good song at the end of the movie (big surprise there!).
I just wanted a feel good romance and so was hoping at least the characters would be engaging but I didn’t get into it. The premise was too silly, characters patronizing or unlikable and the songs (a big part of the movie) weren’t very good. Overall let down…
There is a lot of swearing in the movie but not much else that is offensive. Not quite as much swearing as in Once (although much of that was in Irish accent which was hard to understand). But I would say Begin Again is adult only because of language.
Clean Content Score- D, Overall Grade- C, not terrible but extremely average.