Friday, June 17, 2011
The basic premise of "Beginners" is that you are never too old to start life anew. Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is mourning the recent death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer). The film moves subtly back and forth in time so that we see Oliver tending to his sick father as well as coping with the grief after his death. For Oliver, the new start involves moving on in life without parents and discovering love with an eccentric and commitment-wary actress named Anna ("Inglorious Basterds'" Melanie Laurent). For Hal, who had recently buried his wife of 44 years, he's starting life anew by coming out of the closet and taking a young gay lover. Mills suggests we are all and will always beginners when it comes to life and love.
Writer-director Mills, as he did in "Thumbsucker," delivers a film that is funny, serious, and touching. The emotions feel real and feel earned. The latter part is important. Too often films provide cheap emotions and tug on heartstrings with contrived melodrama. "Beginners" lets its characters evolve slowly, revealing themselves when they feel comfortable to do so, and with a warm, genuine quality. Mills never allows the film to descend into a disease of the week tearjerker. Some may tear up but only because they have truly come to care about Mills' characters.
The film also benefits from the graceful performances of McGregor and Plummer. McGregor, as he recently did in "I Love You Phillip Morris," reveals himself as an actor of quiet skills and immense appeal. Plummer, on the other hand, plays a little more broadly but no less effectively. Together they serve up a wonderful father-son relationship that proves it is never too late to change. The weakest link in the film is Laurent. She is lovely and charming but not altogether convincing. And kudos to the cute dog and his occasionally clever subtitled dialogue.
The film drags a bit, which makes it feel overlong by the time we reach the end. It's not a fatal flaw by any means, just an occasional annoyance. It's not so much a pacing issue as that it suffers from a hipster coolness that keeps things very calm and a tad detached. But Mills is very good at creating and developing credible characters so we remain engaged throughout. I do want to praise Mills for the way he moves the story back and forth in time. He doesn't do overt flashbacks but rather has the narrative continually flowing back and forth like the tides, very fluid. The narrative is more driven by emotions and memory than by events and chronology. That unconventional approach works beautifully and gives the film a refreshing quality.
"Beginners" (rated R for language and some sexual content) is probably the most appropriate film you could go see this father's day. And outside of that holiday it is still a lovely work.
Companion viewing: "I Never Sang for My Father," "That Certain Summer," "A Single Man"