A film review by Craig J. Koban August 6, 2011
2011, R, 105 mins.
2011, R, 105 mins.
Oliver: Ewan McGregor / Hal: Christopher Plummer / Anna: Melanie
Laurent / Andy: Goran Visnjic / Elliot: Kai Lennox / Georgia:
Mary Page Keller
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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