A film review by Craig J. Koban August 6, 2011

Rank:  #24 

BEGINNERS jjj
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2011, R, 105 mins.

 

Oliver: Ewan McGregor / Hal: Christopher Plummer / Anna: Melanie Laurent / Andy: Goran Visnjic / Elliot: Kai Lennox / Georgia: Mary Page Keller

Written and directed by Mike Mills

Mike Millsí BEGINNERS tells two endearing and memorable love stories: one involving romantic love between a man and a woman and the other involving family love between the same man and his dying father, the latter whom has revealed to his son Ė at the tender and ripe age of 75 Ė that he has been a closeted homosexual throughout most of his life.  

On paper, BEGINNERS could have been lazily structured with phony, TV sitcom worthy conflicts and contrivances, but Mills (THUMBSUCKER) is far too observant and ultimately affectionate of his characters for that type of unwholesome discourse.  The two stories of love weave and intersect within one another with a fluidity and rhythm, which leaves BEGINNERS feeling more emotional honest, poignant, quirky, and moving.   

The title of the film is telling: BEGINNERS is a dramedy that is about beginning life anew, regardless of time or age, and how we often find ourselves starting over in an effort to finally begin to understand and accept who we are.  Itís ostensibly about how change affects not only the individual, but also those most close around that person, not to mention all of the nagging uncertainties that come as a by-product of such radical transitions.  BEGINNERS may seem like it's more about the gay man that trapped himself within a hetero, family lifestyle for decades that finally comes out before it's too late in life, but it actually is more intriguingly about how the manís son has to deal with both his fatherís surprising change and his own troubles dealing with romantic commitment.  Both men seem to desperately look for love on their own terms, but itís the sonís unique relationship with his father that manages to teach him how to cope with his own insecurities and self-doubts.    

The life-affirming film is skillfully told as a series of interconnected flashbacks, kind of akin to (500) DAYS OF SUMMER: The three periods in question are the times between the father announcing his coming out to the son and his own death years later, the stage of the sonís life after his fatherís passing, and finally the son's flashbacks to his own childhood memories of his father and mother.  Whatís really compelling here is how Mills' past as a music video director and graphic designer comes to the forefront:  He captures the way oneís memories are a fractured mosaic that is pieced together bit by bit to form a meaningful whole.  By frequently juxtaposing between all of the various periods, Mills establishes the necessary connective tissue that allows viewers, slowly but surely, to develop a fully and more rewarding portrait of the son and fatherís life.  Some have called the film's storytelling technique kind of jumbled, messy and cluttered, but that is source of BEGINNERSí real strength: it creates not only a unique prerogative for the film, but it also evokes how memories actually function for people that struggle with the present.   

 The son in question is the 38-year-old Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a struggling commercial artist that seems unlucky in both his vocation and in love, seeing as he has always managed to be unsure of himself and unsure in the ways of commitment.  His mother died years ago and his aging father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) has just recently dropped a bombshell: he has been gay for most of his life and during his entire 44-year marriage he essentially was living a lie, but nonetheless maintained it to ensure the stability of rearing young Oliver.  Instead of dealing with this news with outrage and anger, Oliver seems to take it all maturely in stride:  he never seems to judge or criticize his fatherís coming out, but rather tries to find avenues to understand and accept it.  Hal, of course, relays the news with a sense of joyful relief and melancholy at the same time.  He knows he does not have much time left, but he does not want to live his remaining years as ďtheoretically gay.Ē 

 

 

Part of the filmís splintered storyline then deals with Halís new relationship he develops with a much younger gay man (Goran Visnjic) and his later development of terminal cancer, during which Oliver tries the best he can to care for his father as to allow him to die with as much dignity as possible.  The other narrative thread deals with Oliver dealing with his fatherís ultimate passing, during which he meets a ravenous and free-spirited French actress named Anna (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDSí luminous Melanie Laurent).  The pair begin their own romantic affair that leads Oliver to struggling with not only his own past relationships with his deceased parents, but also with the prevailing notion that he seems like a raw and naÔve beginner when it comes to meaningful relationships.   

BEGINNERS has one of the most effectively staged and original meet-cutes Iíve seen in a film in an awfully long time between Anna and Oliver: Idle, depressed, and downtrodden after Halís death, Oliver begrudgingly attends a costume party dressed as Sigmund Freud where he meets Anna, who becomes sofa-side patient of sorts, but communicates only in a few whispers and notes (she has laryngitis).  The sequence is noteworthy for how it typifies the resoundingly strong chemistry that McGregor and Laurent have, not to mention how well they make their roles feel suitably lived-in and credible.  Laurent - exquisitely beautiful and spontaneously effervescent Ė makes for an effective foil to the more subdued Oliver, and McGregor has never been more charmingly vulnerable and guarded in a performance.   

Plummer, on the other hand, gives the filmís most memorably touching and enchanting performance creating a man that is not troubled or unsure of his lifestyle change, but rather a prideful, dignified, and happy figure that embraces his homosexuality at a time in his life when coming out is a social death sentence.  What makes Hal such a rousing and likeable figure in the film is how Plummer knows how to play him not as a victim of his far-reaching lifestyle change, but one that embraces it as fully and with as much youthful enthusiasm as he can muster, even when death is only a stoneís throw away.  For a revered and accomplished actor like Plummer to have never won an Oscar is shameful in itself, and his work in BEGINNERS just could net him one next spring.  

Not all of the film clicks uniformly well: I found that the script sometimes undermines Halís wife (played by Mary Page Keller in the flashbacks) as a character: sheís more of an oddly enigmatic presence in the film than a well-rounded and developed persona.  Then there are instances of painfully forced and tired comic relief provided by Oliverís newly acquired Jack Russell terrier, who communicates in subtitled dialogue in scenes that are not nearly as amusing or smart as the film thinks there are.  Nonetheless, those are minor and almost inconsequential nitpicks because BEGINNERS is a lyrically plotted, beautifully acted, and graciously and attentively directed drama about love, loss, and change.  It's also a tenderly autobiographical work (based apparently on Mills' own fatherís late stage coming out in life) and you can sense the filmmaker making the film as a form of artistic and personal catharsis.  Most importantly, though, the film suggests one of the most everlasting and universal of all life lessons: it's never too late to remodel oneself.

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