Review: Beginners

Could playing gay finally land Christopher Plummer an Oscar? It worked for Sean Penn.

Mike Mills’ debut 2005 feature “Thumbsucker” encapsulated the early 21st-century American indie movement in a nutshell: a quirky, whimsical comedy/drama about a sympathetic, oddball outsider, a cast chock full of excellent character actors, an oh-so-clever script, a shakable but ultimately optimistic worldview. It was yet another entry in the Wes Anderson school of charmingly idiosyncratic storytelling, a barrage of films that has included “Juno,” “Rocket Science,” “City Island,” “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (directed by Mills’ wife, Miranda July), and recent entries like “Cedar Rapids” and the upcoming “Terri.” Don’t get me wrong, I highly recommend “Thumbsucker;” its eccentricities came not from a Diablo Cody-esque desire to demonstrate its own cuteness, but a sense that Mills simply wasn’t taking himself too seriously.

It’s that self-conscious avoidance of solemnity that keeps Mills’ sophomore feature “Beginners” from falling into any of many potential pitfalls. Semi-autobiographical, “Beginners” deals with Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic designer who must cope with the consecutive revelations that his 75-year old father Hal (Christopher Plummer) a) was a closeted homosexual his entire married life, and b) is now gravely ill. Considering that, it’s a wonder that “Beginners” manages not to become a film that is either about “ZOMG GAY PEOPLE” or “WAAHH CANCER IS SAD.” Eschewing the most obvious avenues, Mills instead keeps the focus very tight on Oliver and his emotional struggles. Since Oliver is Mills’ personal surrogate, I suppose this direction should be more selfish than surprising. But there is a poignancy to Oliver’s story, a resonance beyond a son just embracing his father’s sexuality (in fact, the way “Beginners” employs homosexuality as a major plot point and yet makes it a complete thematic non-issue is extremely refreshing).

For Oliver, it’s not the fact that his father is gay that bothers him; it’s the idea that his parents may have stuck in a loveless marriage for so many years, denying themselves a true shot at happiness. That nagging sense of betrayal has clearly haunted Oliver for years, even before Hal’s revelation; “Beginners” leaps back and forth between three different time periods (Oliver and Hal during Hal’s sickness, Oliver after Hal’s death, and flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood), and the uniting factor is Oliver’s melancholic gaze and shuffling, puppy dog demeanor. Oliver has wandered sadly from one relationship to the next, afraid of commitment because he’s so sure things will never work out.

Enter: that most convenient, illogical of indie movie stock characters, yes, it’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl!! She’s gorgeous, charming, completely unattached and of course, completely into you and your emotional neediness. All you need is a proper Meet Cute (in this case, an inexplicable costume party), and you’re on your way!

OK, sorry, I’m being rather harsh (no, I’m not) on Anna (Mélanie Laurent), the French actress with whom Oliver begins a love affair a few months after his father’s passing. Anna is nowhere near as infuriatingly imaginary as Natalie Portman in “Garden State” or Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown;” Mills gives her more baggage and a more rounded personality than those waifs, even if her very existence still strikes us as rather wishful thinking. Anna doesn’t make the film careen off the rails the way she could’ve, but the relationship between her and Oliver does drag on a bit too long (and I’m incredibly patient when it comes to anything involving Laurent).

In the casting of Laurent and her on-screen doppelganger, we can see where Mills breaks with the American-indie mold and seeks out other influences: namely, European cinema. In its subtlety, quietly sorrowful atmosphere and general lack of conflict or confrontation, “Beginners” feels decidedly…French. Technically, you have to define “Beginners” as heartfelt and optimistic; in the end, as the title implies, it’s all about how it’s never too late to start over, to find the life you’re looking for. But this disclosure doesn’t feel as satisfying as it would in your typical Hollywood flick. Like the European auteurs, Mills doesn’t gloss over the loneliness and suffering that we’ll all encounter along our road to happiness. Hey, at least there is happiness at some point. That’s more than Bergman ever managed.

Countering that sobering sense of realism, Mills has certainly retained plenty of his indie appeal. A subtitled terrier, some amusing (and remarkably moving) stream-of-consciousness narration by Oliver, and a few memory-testing camera tricks demonstrate that Mills’ style from “Thumbsucker” has not been completely abandoned, but has simply matured. Again, Mills avoids the trap of getting too caught up in these gimmicks, just employing them enough to balance out Oliver’s dejection.

Plummer’s performance has been singled out, and the veteran Brit does deserve high praise for not making Hal a 100% genial, adorable old man. Yes, Hal suddenly embracing his sexuality leads to some amusing situations, but there are some lingering questions – why did he stick in such an unfulfilling marriage for so long? If it was for Oliver’s sake, they seem to have kept up the charade for longer than necessary. Did he lack the courage to come out until his wife had died? Plummer brings that slight touch of human fallibility to the role that keeps Hal believable.

Meanwhile, McGregor has a great face for emotive distress, but I was particularly impressed by Mary Page Keller as Georgia, Oliver’s mother, whose brief flashback appearances are a clinic in dissatisfaction. Laurent…well, she certainly has the least to work with (“Some people think things will never work out…others of us…believe in magic” **HUURGHHH**), and does what she can. But something tells me Miranda July might want to lock that shit down.

Now in indie theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Review: Beginners

  1. Elaine

    From your reviews, I’m starting to sense a pattern in my taste in men: British, melancholic gaze, puppy dog demeanor. Hmm… Well, if this film criticism business doesn’t work out, you could always go diagnose women’s taste in men!

    On a more serious note, I really liked this review. I know I say I like all of them (or at least most), but this one moved well, methinks, for some reason I haven’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps I just like the paragraph about the French. 😛 You have tended, of late, to start your reviews with some film history/mention of some other film/trend to bring us into this film–which isn’t a criticism; merely an observation.

    But yay! Your review really made me want to see it. And that photo you picked made Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer actually look like each other. Shocking. Is Ewan McGregor’s career back on track, or at least starting to be? I love that man.

  2. I’m just making the observations, you’re the one who’s noticed the trend. But yes, I’m starting to think you don’t actually want a guy, you just want a puppy.

    I do think Ewan McGregor’s career is back on the rise, what with the recent goodwill from “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” “The Ghost Writer” and now “Beginners.” It seems the years of “Star Wars” and “The Island” are finally starting to fade. More power to him.

  3. Elaine

    “You don’t actually want a guy, you just want a puppy.”
    I’m going to hold you to that.

    I’m just going through and catching up on all these movies you watched already, but I don’t agree with your review at all. 😛 I think you’re being unfair to Mélanie Laurent and blaming her character for the failings of a film that fell short regardless of her. I found their relationship refreshing, though I will concede that it distracted from the story about Oliver and his parents even as it served to illustrate the “moral” of the story. I think the jumps in time and the “historical” voice-overs (while very interesting an approach and appealing to a historical geek like me) were too gimmicky and made the movie drag. I felt like I was being taught a history lesson–yes, the sun is the same from the 50s to now, but gays can now openly have sex. That’s wonderful, but we could have known that through Oliver’s parents’ relationship and Christopher Plummer’s sexuality rather than being beaten over the head by an indie history book (graphic design sketches). Instead of indulging in this quirky narrative technique, admirable as it is, it would have served the movie better and interested me more if he had illustrated this difference in time through an exploration of Oliver’s parents’ relationship or their personalities. I felt like the film never quite came together, and every time I wanted to explore an issue further, such as why Oliver’s parents maintained their marriage for so long, or why Oliver’s mother proposed to him (or how their relationship even started, for that matter), or Oliver’s childhood relationship to his father, we jumped away to another time period or activity (yay roller skating!). Yes, Ewan McGregor and the script let us know that Oliver is lost. Yes, Christopher Plummer gives us a very interesting, nuanced look at a long-closeted, old gay man. Most of all, Mary Page Keller is hilarious and fascinating. But in the end, it never came together for anything. I understood the message, but I knew that was coming from the very beginning (heh–clever) and I’d lost interest. Instead of capturing my attention, the movie became a chore, subjecting me to endless lessons and musings rather than delving into the issues it shallowly presents.

  4. Goodness. You really didn’t like this movie. Allow me to make a counter-argument or two:

    First, I find it odd that you claim I find too much fault in Anna, but then say the movie doesn’t spend enough time exploring Oliver’s parents or other avenues the movie had available. Well perhaps I didn’t say it clearly enough, but that’s what I was kind of trying to say, that the movie wastes time with a very drawn-out Manic Pixie Dream Girl plot line that is OK (there have certainly been far worse), but too much like something we’ve seen many times before (girl shows lonely guy that there is still hope and love to be found). My problem is not with Laurent at all, who I think elevates the material. But the primary failing of the film is definitely too much Anna and not enough of Oliver’s parents, to my mind.

    That said, a certain shallowness to Oliver’s parents also makes sense: after all, these are his memories and his musings about their relationship, and the entire point is that he doesn’t really understand them. He doesn’t understand why they stayed together so long, he doesn’t understand why they’d even get married in the first place. Oliver is either too shy or too late to ask these questions, and by the time both of his parents are gone, they just kind of float there, permanently ambiguous.

    Are we supposed to find those answers somewhere in the Anna plot line? Is there parallelism there that I wasn’t thinking about the first time around? I would need to watch this film again to say. But I thought the contrast between Oliver’s specific memories of his parents (such vivid, wonderful scenes from Plummer and Keller) and his hazy understanding of what those moments MEANT was intentional: love can operate in such mysterious ways, and trying to decipher someone else’s relationship can be a permanently futile task.

    And then we’ll just have to agree to disagree on the “history lessons” as you call them. Those cutesy indie touches simply didn’t bother me; I thought they were just Oliver’s (oh-so-)clever attempts to deal with and understand his problems.

  5. Elaine

    Well, if these memories are intended to be hazy and incomplete, then I feel like the rest of the movie doesn’t do enough to support them or bring the meaning/significance out of them. I guess maybe I just didn’t care enough about them in the end, which is unusual, particularly for Ewan McGregor, and I guess I fault the writing for that.

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