Thursday, August 4, 2011

Beginners (2011)

There's a simple litmus test to decide whether or not you'll enjoy Beginners: do you prefer John Lennon or Paul McCartney as your favorite Beatle? If you prefer the more politically-charged surrealism of Lennon, chances are you'll find the film a pleasant-if-grating lark, one that provides some entertaining moments but ultimately wears thin by the third act without ever actually making a statement. If you, like me, prefer McCartney's twee larks of love and precocious living, then the film proves to be a magic marvel, a quirky glimpse at learning to love, age be damned.

Beginners tells the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), an artist who is in a difficult period of his life. His last relationship has fallen apart. His mother (Mary Page Keller) passed a few years before. And, most recently, his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has come out at the age of 75, announcing that he's always been gay, just as he's been diagnosed with a terminal illness. After his death (no spoiler there), he falls in love with an actress, Anna (Melanie Laurent) and their relationship may be just what he needs.

Writer/director Mike Mills has stated in interviews that this film is based on his personal experiences with his father, and that depth shows in Oliver's somewhat-standoffish though completely loving relationship with Hal. McGregor is endlessly underrated as an actor (seriously, he should have at least three Oscar nominations at this point), and he's marvelously human here, gripped by sadness and desperately looking for a way out. You can see his Oliver reconciling his entire life in the wake of Hal's big announcement, trying to make sense of his childhood and his parents' relationship. Plummer, too, is exceptional, beaming wildly as a man who's finally allowed himself to be himself. It's not a flashy role, but he's memorably warm and subtle. And Laurent...if Inglourious Basterds is where I fell in love with her, then her performance as Anna is the moment I made a lifelong commitment to that love. She takes a role that could have easily been another Manic Pixie Dream Girl (to borrow AV Club's Nathan Rabin's term) and makes into something so much more, a character that's equal parts human being and the living embodiment of romantic salvation.

As a stated in the opening paragraph, this movie is the cinematic equivalent of a Paul McCartney song: though it's remarkably deep and honest, the surface is very twee. Oliver's dog, Arthur, has subtitled thoughts. Oliver meets Anna at a costume party, where she can't speak because of laryngitis. Hal, and later Oliver, enters his home by announcing "Hello, house," and promptly answering himself in a deeper voice, "Hello, Hal." To some, this will no doubt be indie-cuteness overload. However, though, if you're willing to look beneath those antics, you'll see the beating heart powering the narrative.

The title says it all: each character is just beginning to learn how to truly love. Beginners is a terrific little film, boldly that it's never to late to love. A

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