The Beatles did it first! Academy Award nominees Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener star in Begin Again.
Cast of Characters:
Gretta – Keira Knightley
Dan Mulligan – Mark Ruffalo
Violet Mulligan – Hailee Steinfeld
Dave Kohl – Adam Levine
Steve – James Corden
Saul – Yasiin Bey
Troublegum – CeeLo Green
Miriam – Catherine Keener
Director – John Carney
Screenplay – John Carney
Producer – Anthony Bregman, Tobin Armbrust & Judd Apatow
Rated R for language
Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is a New York record label executive, struggling to find the next big thing for his and his partner Saul’s (Yasiin Bey) company. His life is complicated enough with his estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and a daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), he can barely make time for; it gets even worse when he loses his job. While out drinking in the East Village, though, he hears a song by a woman named Gretta (Keira Knightley) that takes him completely by surprise. He makes a big push to get her to sign with his company (well, the one he apparently no longer works for), but being the fiercely independent songwriter that she is, she refuses.
That’s when Dan comes up with an idea: Go around the company, forget the single and just produce a live album for her on their own, using a variety of city locations.
Writer/director John Carney hit it big a few years back with the acclaimed Once, a film I certainly didn’t hate, but wasn’t overly-enthused about like everyone else was. While watching Begin Again, it was almost impossible not to compare it to Carney’s previous hit, considering on paper they’re almost identical. Begin Again (originally titled the clunky Can a Song Save Your Life) is definitely feel-good manipulation, and highly implausible. I’m still wondering how they could record a song, in New York City of all extremely busy places, in one take and have it come out sounding as good as it does. Despite that, I still couldn’t help but enjoy this sugarcoated film.
What works is the cast. They’re stock characters, for sure, but this talented ensemble still sold me on them thanks to their performances. Mark Ruffalo, in particular, can play these scruffy, down-on-their-luck, likeable losers in his sleep. Dan Mulligan isn’t anything we haven’t already seen (the “he just needs that one hit to get back on track, and he also has a daughter with daddy issues ’cause he wasn’t there enough for her” guy), but Ruffalo’s performance is so good, and he always has been able to fit these types of roles like a glove, that he makes an overused character believable. Not just that, but he’s someone I found myself rooting for to succeed.
Equally strong is Keira Knightley, who as always, comes off so charming and adorable I wanted to punch myself in the face. Knightly also recorded her own vocals, and she’s pretty good. It’s not a flashy style, more down-to-earth and soulful, which really compliments her character. When it’s her and Ruffalo together, the film is at its strongest.
Also, despite the conventional script, Carney uses narrative technique where the story doubles back, showing the moment Gretta and Dan meet from both of their perspectives that works quite well.
The supporting cast features some fine work from Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), and a lively turn from James Corden. The big surprise amongst them all, though, is Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, who’s surprisingly really good here. Granted, as a singer/songwriter hitting it big, and then turning into a douche (once he’s famous, he reunites with Greta sporting the obligatory “I’m now a douche” bushy beard), Levine’s kinda playing a variation on himself. It’s such a natural and low-key performance from him, though, where he plays the tool without coming off obnoxious or easily hated, and the scenes he shares with Knightley are strong (a fine example being when he tries to win her back).
I will say, and it led to an unintentional laugh from me, that I found it odd how Miriam makes a big deal out of how horrible of a guitarist Violet apparently is. Then when she’s asked by Gretta to join in on a recording session, she shyly turns her amp on and riffs out a solo that’s in the right key and has a catchy melody that fits the song beautifully.
So what exactly is Miriam’s standards on what defines a good and horrible guitarist?
If you can get past the fact that this is too similar to Once, there’s a chance you’ll be able to enjoy this film. It’s certainly manipulative and you can see Carney’s string-tugging from a mile away, but thanks to two terrific lead performances from Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, a talented supporting cast and an upbeat, catchy soundtrack, Begin Again avoids being a festering pile of hokey cheese, and is instead an imperfect, but still pleasantly sweet musical fable.
I give Begin Again a B (★★★).