Thursday, June 23, 2011


Appealing and profound simultaneously, "Beginners" finds a way to navigate through its story that makes it feel much realer and much more involving than most recent "whimsical" comedies (viz. "500 Days of Summer," "Away We Go"). It is about the pursuit of happiness, elusive at every moment in time due to far different repressing circumstances. Hal (Christopher Plummer), a museum director, went through married life a closeted gay man, and finally, after his wife died and the times changed to allow homosexuality, came out to salvage the final years of his life. He doesn't live much longer, but he gets to experience a timeless thing, which one can have even in the face of death: love. His son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), not very successful romantically, comes to find a source of joy after his father dies in Anna (Melanie Laurent), whom he meets at a party. This is after periods of isolation where no one finds his stoicism and seriousness all too enjoyable.

In both instances, death unlocks love and death bears hardship. Even though Oliver narrates history in a linear, practical way, his memories come to haunt him in random moments and in random order. The film often repeats itself and delves back into Oliver's childhood and time with his dying father to show what he's relating to his girlfriend. He often thinks of his zany mother (Mary Page Keller), with whom he had one of those more strange relationships; there are moments from his early life that he brings in perhaps to have some touchstone to operate with. He's so tied to his past that the ending, which I've seen before in other films of which this one is reminiscent, makes sense and nicely concludes the film's thesis.

"Beginners" for the most part has a subversive sensibility that strays towards Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" and Richard Linklater's Jesse and Celine diptych (the latter at certain points perhaps a little too much). It knows how to be actually sweet and funny, utilizing the supporting cast (Kai Lennox and China Shavers as Oliver's friends; Goran Visnjic as Hal's newfound lover) well and supplying old Woody Allen/newly repurposed cliches (eccentric subtitles, old music) with not only new life but a tangibility to the plot. Mike Mills, who has written and directed this film based on his life, both allots time to both blissfully meandering and thoughtfully meditating on deep themes (some subtly introduced).

The film's key asset, though, is its lead performers. McGregor drives the film with his pensiveness and quiet humor and pleasure. It's his finest performance by a good measure. Laurent, with her glorious smile and incredible charisma, is exactly what the film needs: its embodiment of delight. But the film really shines under the control of Plummer, who knows how to play the newly emerged father: open to new things, accepting (sadly but wholeheartedly) of his fate, amazedly discovering things that are supposedly obvious. With this complex and radiant performance, Plummer alongside McGregor marks his career high.

"Beginners" may be about 10 minutes too long, wasting some time in repeating things and sometimes frustratingly moving away from the scene at hand. But it gets at and portrays emotions palpably enough to produce a state of euphoria for a viewer receptive to the film's carefully developed wavelength. B+

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