Review: Begin Again
PLOT: A down-on-his-luck music exec (Mark Ruffalo) discovers a beautiful songwriter (Keira Knightley) who's nursing a broken heart. They join forces to make an album with her songs recorded against the NYC urban soundscape.
REVIEW: BEGIN AGAIN is director John Carney's long-awaited follow-up to his indie hit ONCE. He's done a couple of low-key movies since then, but this is a major return to form, and it's no wonder The Weinstein Company ended up buying this in the biggest deal of the fest (so far). To be sure, it's not unlike ONCE, with this also being a story about two troubled people brought together by a shared love of music. While ONCE was a little more authentic in that the two actors (Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova) really were musicians and really were falling in love, this more polished variation is nonetheless tremendously entertaining.
Once interesting thing it reveals is that Keira Knightley actually has a pretty nice voice. The film opens with her singing a charming low-key ballad, and while she's probably not going to turn into a pop star, she has an indie Feist kind-of thing going that works well for the film. Again – like ONCE – this film is jampacked with original songs, working as a kinda-sorta musical. While none of the songs are as shattering as “Falling Slowly” they have a nice sound to them and should prove popular with audiences once this comes out. Heck, they could even get some decent radio airplay.
As musically driven as it is though, John Carney never lets the focus shift from what this actually is, which is the story of two damaged people who give each other the boost they desperately need. Ruffalo plays the rumpled, former prodigy producer who was famous for his work with hip-hop bands in the nineties, but has gone to seed after a bad break-up with his wife (Catherine Keener). He spends his days in an alcoholic stupor, pitied by his former partner (Yasiin Bey- aka Mos Def) and despised by his teenaged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). It's the sort-of role Ruffalo's played before, but it suits him well and he also shows us a spark of passion behind the character's eyes that suggest he's a more hopeful person than he lets on. There's a scene early on – when he first sees Knightley on stage – that he immediately imagines the perfect arrangement for her song, with instruments coming to life, giving her ballad a strong hook, that's an interesting peek into the music exec mindset.
In the meantime, Knightley makes you fall in love with her all over again in a role she seems ideally suited for. Her character is wounded thanks to a break-up with her newly famous rock star boyfriend (Adam Levine of Maroon 5) but her vulnerability and passion for music makes her intensely likable She also never goes the manic pixie dream girl route. Rather, she's three-dimensional and an adult, and isn't just around to help Ruffalo fix his life. She has issues of her own to deal with. The chemistry between her and Ruffalo is a lot like that between Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray in LOST IN TRANSLATION. They seem like they could be friends and a scene where they walk around New York sharing an iPod is something special.
Some of the supporting players here also deserve kudos, with Steinfeld (of TRUE GRIT) making Ruffalo's daughter a believable character. She's angry, but not a bitch. James Corden plays the requisite comic relief, and while this is definitely an archetypal role, it can't be denied that he's extremely likable and funny as Knightley's best pal and fellow ex-pat brit.
While I'd still give ONCE a slight edge over this due to it's authenticity, BEGIN AGAIN is like a more polished commercial variation on a similar story. It feels like it could catch on an an even bigger way than the last one, and proves that Carney, with his knack for music and relationships, could be another Cameron Crowe (JERRY MAGUIRE even gets a shout-out early-on). This is a terrific movie that's guaranteed to put a smile on your face, no matter how jaded you may think you are.
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