When a movie is as cliché-ridden and predictable as Begin Again, it’s often difficult to identify which is more to blame, the screenplay or the direction. In this case, John Carney, who also performed similar chores for the 2006 movie musical Once, has made it easy; he’s again responsible for both.
This 2013 tale of middle-aged redemption, artistic striving and music industry backstage story stars two talented, likeable actors, Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. He’s Dan, a down-and-out former record label exec, nearly broke, divorced and estranged from his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). She’s Gretta, a talented but unheralded singer/songwriter, at loose ends in New York City after her long-time boyfriend Dave Kohl (good-looking Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine) has hit it big and - I know you’ll be shocked by this - been seduced by the rock-and-roll lifestyle and left her for another woman.
Dan discovers Gretta singing one of her sweet, mournful songs in an East Village bar and convinces her that he can make her a star. The trouble is that she doesn’t want to be a star, because she is really just all about the music. Really. But of course there’d be no movie if she returned to England to nurse her broken heart, so Dan hits on the great idea of recording not just one of her songs but an entire album in the streets, alleys, rooftops, subways and parks of that incredibly under-used setting, New York City. He wangles recording equipment (with the help of Gretta’s musician buddy Steve, an excellent James Corden), backup musicians and seed money from millionaire rapper Troublegum (an amusing Cee Lo Green).
What spark there is in Begin Again comes from the several music videos that comprise Gretta’s impromptu recording sessions. Unfortunately, these don’t start appearing until nearly 45 minutes in; first we have to wade through the Dan’s-a-lovable-loser setup and the Gretta-and-Dave backstory flashback. And even within the musical segments there are clichés to spare: a gang of noisy kids who threaten the first recording session are first bribed by Dan to be quiet and then are recruited to be backup singers. This movie makes those 1930s musicals with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland puttin’ on a show in a barn look like documentaries.
To be fair, there are a few points when Begin Again finds some power by embracing and acknowledging its clichés. When Dan and Gretta take a nighttime tour through the city listening to each other’s guilty pleasure playlist, which includes a swaggering Frank Sinatra “Luck be a Lady” and the still-fresh Stevie Wonder “For Once in My Life,” the sequence makes Dan’s (and the movie’s) point: that music’s power can redeem and enliven even the most banal sentiments. Then Carney overplays his hand with the emotionally manipulative, though still effective, recording of Dooley Wilson crooning “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca.
If by the end of this 104-minute movie you’re still wondering whether Gretta’s album will turn out great; whether she will maintain her standards of artistic purity when faced with the machinations of music industry executives; whether her ex-boyfriend will be sorry he left his true love and will perform “their” song “Lost Stars” without all that rock-and-roll razzle-dazzle; and whether Dan will reconcile with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener, wasted in a throwaway role), then you are the perfect audience for this movie.
I probably sound like a cynical old sourpuss, and I would be the first to note my own inconsistencies when it comes to stories like this. I liked the similarly themed Chef (while noting its set of fairy-tale contrivances and manipulative tricks). And I have to admit that Keira Knightley, who does her own singing, occasionally does touch the few real emotions buried under the mass of synthetic ready-made ones.
Mark Ruffalo, who I usually admire greatly, seems phony from the get-go. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve seen too many One Last Chance stories; perhaps it’s the straightjacket of his character as written and directed. But I didn’t buy his despair, and I only rarely felt anything that valuable was at stake in his relationships with Gretta, his wife or his daughter.
Begin Again is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and via digital download; it includes a “making of” featurette and music videos, including Adam Levine’s “Lost Stars.” Non-hopeless romantics will want to just watch the videos and skip the story surrounding them.