This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 20th July 2014
Every now and then a clichéd poster and a trite movie title prove to be completely misleading as to the actual quality of a film. If the thought of watching a singing Keira Knightley and a (typically) dishevelled Mark Ruffalo pick apart their despairing lives while bonding over jazz instinctively turns you off, let me quickly assuage those misapprehensions – because Begin Again is in fact a smart, energetic and largely unpredictable take on the “starting over” story.
We meet Knightley in a New York nightclub, reluctantly pulled on stage by her fellow British expatriate (One Chance’s always delightful James Corden) to perform a melancholy acoustic number she has penned about being alone in a strange city. For reasons not yet shared with us, she’s not had a good day. Then, evoking the film’s title but thankfully eschewing a Groundhog Day sensibility, Ruffalo’s (typically) dishevelled music exec pours out of bed in his scruffy apartment on the morning of the same day, before driving his Jaguar through Manhatton streets, hiffing rejectable demo tapes out the car window in a growing rage. Life doesn’t seem to be going well for him, either.
These two characters’ lives become inevitably entwined, but what makes the film so engaging and rescues it from formula is the deft handling of all of the relationships – romantic, paternal, platonic – which are bolstered by a strong, energetic script and natural performances. Knightley, a fine but oft-maligned actress, is simply excellent – mature and self-assured without being haughty, retaining her native accent and delivering witty banter with Ruffalo (who is also terrific once his character’s “boozy loser” cliché bucks up its ideas and reveals his natural charm). Indie favourite Catherine Keener is reliably dry as the scathing ex-wife, while True Grit’s ingénue, Hailee Steinfeld, is all grown up and well and truly out of pigtails.
Core to the charm of Begin Again are the musical preoccupations of its creator, Irish writer/director John Carney whose smash hit Once charted the burgeoning relationship of two young musicians in Dublin. While this latest tale has been transposed to the sharper streets of NYC and is faced by big-name stars, the creation of music is still the film’s central thread rather than merely a flimsy backdrop for romance. Knightley sings for real as a gang of talented misfits employs a delightfully punk rock way of making non-punk rock music. Even the casting of hip-hop artist Mos Def and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine works out OK – granted, Levine is better is scenes where he gets to play the superstar which clearly comes naturally to him, but his acting doesn’t make you cringe.
Begin Again could have done with a better title, but it is nonetheless a lively, fresh story created by a band of true professionals.