"Begin Again" Out Of Tune With Charismatic Leads

John Carney’s hyper low-budget “Once” didn’t just reframe what a movie-musical could be. It won an Academy Award, became a smash-hit show on Broadway, and exploded the careers of its talented leads (Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova). It was the kind of slow-building, worth-of-mouth dependent phenomenon rarely seen in the industry anymore, inimitable in both its charm and hard-earned success. Enter “Begin Again,” Carney’s spiritual successor to “Once,” a film that doesn’t know the meaning of the word “inimitable,” aping its predecessor at every turn to inevitably diminished returns.

Keira Knightley (“Pirates Of The Caribbean”) stars as Greta, a struggling English singer-songwriter, while Mark Ruffalo (“The Avengers”) shares top billing as Steve, a past-his-prime, alcoholic record exec. “Begin Again” sees their worlds collide in a New York dive bar, some unspoken cosmic force bringing the pair together so they can patch up each other’s tattered lives. As characters, Greta and Steve are thinly drawn, but likable in the most basic romantic-comedy sense, and together, Knightley and Ruffalo do rich, resonant work in a film that frequently isn’t.

The mawkish world built up around them consistently betrays the duo’s intuition as actors, undermining any emotional impact their performances – and the pic’s intermittently compelling songs – might have had. As Steve begins to piece together the perceptibly dumb idea of recording a studio album live on the streets of New York City, it’s hard not to pull away from Carney’s misplaced naivety. Even musical novices will have trouble buying the film’s central, silly conceit – that any reputable musician would make a self-produced record outdoors, let alone listen to one.

Carney isn’t even content to tell his trifle of a story with the simplicity it requires. No, he takes the long way around, beginning with his leads’ initial meet-cute before going back to the events that led them to each other, taking nearly half the film’s running time to return to its starting point. Steve’s backstory is agreeable enough – recently divorced father of one loses touch with his work – but Greta’s extended flashback brings the film to a screeching halt. Specifically, her uneasy romance with a budding rock star, Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine), is the story’s low point. Levine is a talented musician, but on screen he’s a black hole of charisma, killing the movie dead time and time again.

In Levine’s defense, Dave – the ostensible bad guy of the piece – is lazily written as half tortured artist, half laughing stock, and Carney actually uses the character’s growth of facial hair as a cue for his increasingly dastardly intentions. Subpar actors are often immune to good material. Throw bad material at one and the results are likely to be as unfortunate as Adam Levine with a mustache. Given what Knightley has to work with during these early scenes, it’s remarkable that she acquits herself as well as she does.

Our heroine’s pitch-corrected vocals leave much to be desired, but the original songs by Gregg Alexander (formerly of late-90s alt-rock act New Radicals) are mostly enjoyable – despite some unfortunate lyrical flourishes (“So let’s get drunk on our tears… yesterday I saw a lion kiss a deer”). The melodies are crisp and the production is tight – even when Greta and company are ostensibly recording in an alleyway – meaning that if “Begin Again” doesn’t quite work as a film, it functions quite nicely as a soundtrack. There’s nothing here as immediate as the Hansard-Irglova duet “Falling Slowly,” but there doesn’t need to be. Unlike “Once,” the leads in “Begin Again” are actors first, musicians second (or fifth), and can carry a film on screen presence alone.

The film is littered with some curious creative choices. When Steve first notices Greta performing at an open mic night, he visualizes a bevy of instruments coming to life next to her, filling out the song. It’s a cute idea, a moment straight out of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” but it’s later explained away as part of Steve’s drunkenness. “That’s when the magic happens,” he notes. And that’s it. Beyond being framed as an apparent perk of Steve’s drinking problem, it’s never addressed again. It’s a strange aside that’s made into a vague, tacit, out of place endorsement of alcoholism.

“Begin Again” gets by on the charm of its leads, but it doesn’t do enough to separate itself from its predecessor. Conversely, the authenticity that was in inherent in “Once” is lost here on a cast of movie stars, and the music isn’t quite good enough to elevate a cloying screenplay. There’s enough to like here, but just as much to stifle said enjoyment. The film isn’t so much a near miss as it is a half-hearted Xerox of a better, more genuine film. Carney’s heart is still in it, but he’d be wise to seek new ground in future musical endeavors.

J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: June 27, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: John Carney
Screenwriter: John Carney
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Cee Lo Green
MPAA Rating: R (for language)