Begin Again Review

7.5 Overall Score
Performances : 7/10
Writing : 6/10
Music : 9/10

Profusely Charming, Soundtrack, Cast Chemistry

Predictable, Ending is a Bit Abrupt

I haven’t had the proper chance to fall in love with the 2007 musical Once like the rest of the critical world did when it was released. I was too young to pay an attention to the film, and only learned of its existence when it won the Best Original Song award at the 2008 Oscars. In subsequent years, I still have not had an opportunity to visit the critically acclaimed romantic comedy, but I have listened to its theme song, the award-winning “Falling Slowly”, dozens of times. “Slowly” is a quiet, beautifully romantic song, one that I’m all but assured captures the spirit of the film. Having witnessed director John Carney’s Begin Again, it appears he has once again channeled a lot of the same energy that made Once such a success. Begin Again is a charming and fun dramedy with solid performances and a great soundtrack to boot.

Mark Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, CEO of a successful record label whose life is in a downward spiral. His daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) don’t think highly of him, he hasn’t signed a hit artist in almost a decade, and his alcohol dependency is at an all-time high. Just as he’s at the brink of ending it all, he hears the voice of Gretta (Keira Knightley). Gretta is new to the city and is itching to return to London following a messy breakup with boyfriend and musical collaborator Dave Kohl (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, in his acting debut). Dan and Gretta form a partnership and set out on an ambitious project to play as an outdoor band around the city, generating buzz for Gretta’s album as they go. In this journey, they both find something more important; themselves (sorry my gag reflex went off too, but it’s what the movie is about).

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Begin Again’s story is not exactly original. It features plenty of already played-out bits whether it be the clichés of the mismatched pairing, the underdog story, the neglected son or daughter, etc. It’s a fairly predictable ride, but there’s an undeniable charm to Carney’s screenplay that makes the simplicity of the story feel intentional and genuine. It allows us as an audience to focus more on the characters at hand, as we don’t become lost in story complications and get lost in our investment to see Dan and Gretta succeed. Their emotional arcs are not less unsurprising than the story, but because the film is so unabashedly likeable, the arcs feel earned.

Ruffalo and Knightley are an inspired combination to lead a film to say the least, but in the context of this film it makes perfect sense. Ruffalo does his usual great work by accurately chronicling the redemption of a broken man, and Knightley gives one of her best performances as the emotionally devastated and timid performer. I won’t comment on whether their relationship escalates into more than a basic partnership, but their chemistry is strong, and the dialogue exchanges play out in a way that allowed me to be satisfied with either outcome.

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Levine is also surprisingly good, enacting a complete reversal of his bad boy public persona by selling us as a John Mayer-esque whose success goes a bit to his head. He’s a likeable but flawed character, and Levine flexes some unexpected emotional chops toward the film’s climax. Steinfeld is one of the best young actresses working today but she’s underutilized here as the typical rebellious daughter (a role she’s already played this year in the Kevin Costner action vehicle 3 Days to Kill). However, she has a screen presence that helps her transcend the generic nature of the role. Cee-Lo Green, Mos Def, and a handful of others show up in fun but limited roles.

Just like the soundtrack for Once, the music is an important part of Begin Again. Songwriter Gregg Alexander’s songs are impressive and interesting, although none of them rival “Falling Slowly”. Knightley proves herself a soothing vocalist, providing each song she performs a gentle and calming sense of character. This is also the best Levine has sounded as a lead vocalist in years, as the overproduction and use of ear-deafening autotune in Maroon 5’s recent chart-toppers are subbed out in favor towards a stripped-down, acoustic style. Knightley and Levine perform two different versions of the film’s best song, “Lost Stars”, and both iterations are great listens that help define and develop respective character traits.

       Begin Again at surface level should not have worked. The premise reads like Generic Romantic Comedy #926, and could’ve devolved into that in less-discerning hands. With the work of this cast and crew, Begin Again works. It’s a film less about romance and more about fame, family, artistic integrity, and resurrection (among other things).These themes are packaged together in a warm and inviting experience that is hard to resist. Begin Again may not be the best movie of the year, but it may be the one that makes you the most happy to be alive and hopeful for the future.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo in "Begin Again"

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Author: Andrew Auger View all posts by
Andrew Auger is a student at Marist College and is majoring in Journalism. He is a huge fan of movies, and considers the late film critic Roger Ebert his idol. He hopes to one day be a prestigious film critic just like Mr. Ebert.

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