REVIEW: Beginners

18 07 2011

A beautiful sampling of life and love, “Beginners” is a free-form comedic and dramatic tale from director Mike Mills that feels as personal to us as it is to him.  Bringing many autobiographical elements into the mix, the film radiates a powerful authenticity, which then translates into charm.  This neurotic charisma is a vital necessity for the movie because it makes us smile through it all – and Mills brings it all to the table.

His “Beginners” is the dark underside of the Hollywood romantic comedy, full of all the indecision, uncertainty, and challenges of real life love.  It successfully takes us through the ups and downs of a relationship, complete with laughter, warmth, pain, and upset.  Not since 2009’s “(500) Days of Summer” has a movie unflinchingly spat in the face of the genre, but rather than invert the banalities for comic effect, Mills simply sticks to the truth and tells the tale as if there had never been a formula planted in our heads for what a romance should look like.  It’s a romantic vision, perhaps, but at least it is a vision, which is more than can be said for most movies nowadays.

Mills also juxtaposes the blooming romance between Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and Anna (Mélanie Laurent, best known as Shoshana from “Inglourious Basterds“) with a different kind of relationship, the withering one between Oliver and his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) in the years before dating Anna.  Their rapport was never strong to begin with as Hal was a distant workaholic father while his son grew up, and upon being widowed, he reveals to Oliver that he is actually homosexual.  As he suffers from terminal liver cancer, Hal is determined to live his life the way he couldn’t while he was living a lie and connects with the gay community, embracing a new lifestyle complete with a young boyfriend (Goran Visnjic).

The movie cuts back between the two tumultuous times in Oliver’s life – while also flashing back to his youthful years with his temperamental mother – with frequency but also a deft hand.  The mood swings aren’t necessarily rational, but then again, neither is love.  The psychological portrait of the protagonist is all the more vivid because of these semi non-sequiturs.  Oliver is confused, unsure, and doubtful, all traits that we as audience members get a sampling of along the way.

And to feel these emotional traits, much emotion is required from the performers.  Thankfully, Mills’ script provides them with some veritable material to transform from life to cinema.  But what McGregor, Laurent, and Plummer accomplish is not merely art imitating life; they bring a new life to the screen, abounding with tenderness and passion.  The real star is, of course, Christopher Plummer, who delivers an incredibly moving performance of a man coming to terms with his identity whilst coming to terms with his mortality.  It’s a rich, deep, and nuanced portrayal that will undoubtedly hold so many surprises upon later viewings.  In just the moment where Hal finds out his cancer is terminal, Plummer emotes so much with just the muscles of his face that we can’t help but feel overcome as well.

Oh, and I’d also be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the most refined canine performance I’ve ever seen by the Jack Russell terrier who plays Arthur, Oliver’s canine companion able to comprehend as much as a tweet.  He also may rival Dug from Pixar’s “Up” as the funniest dog on the big screen.

The easy review here would have been to hold “Beginners” up to the Woody Allen standard and do a line-by-line comparison.  While both feature scratchy jazz recordings, quirky characters, eclectic aesthetics, and stories that tout the unpredictability of modern relationships, Mike Mills’ movie offers such an intimate experience from the writer/director’s own soul that such parallels hardly seem apt.  His film doesn’t offer up any easy answers or wave a banner for any correct way to go through life, but he offers up some profundities that will stick with us as we puzzle out life on our own terms.  B+ / 

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2 responses

19 07 2011
Sam Fragoso

This is my favorite film I’ve seen this year. Glad you enjoyed it Marshall.

Very nice review.

20 07 2011
Marshall

The good news for you is that thanks to Plummer’s performance, it will stick around in talk for the rest of the year! By the time it inevitably gets an Oscar nomination, Focus will have it on DVD and reaching so many homes it wouldn’t have before.

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