Jun 5, 2011
A case of terminal preciousness from writer-director Mike Mills, Beginners is a rambling, repetitive, faux charming movie about Oliver, a young man (Ewan McGregor, yum) whose father, Hal, (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay after years of living a lie, and then dies of cancer. I'm not giving anything away; this happens in the first five minutes. The rest is a back and forth between the present, with Oliver, in mourning and deathly afraid of relationships, and Plummer, giving a saintly, restrained performance as a sick old man living it up before he dies. The best thing in the movie is Cosmo the dog, one of the best canine actors I've ever seen, playing Arthur the dog. He is funny and serene and I don't know if he put his costars through hell at the shoot, but he seems to be a consummate professional.
I have very little patience with twee, whimsical, independent movies like this one, where adults pushing forty refuse to grow up and act too preciously for words. Beginners is proof that some independent films have already become a tired cliche. It tries hard to avoid the conventionality of clear emotions (even if they are confused, they should be clear) and stays away from conventional dramatic exchanges. It's like mumblecore without the mumbling.
Oliver is an illustrator, and he draws deadpan illustrations of his sadness. He is asked to do a record cover for a band (the kind of band that exists in a movie such as this, as hipsterish as it is humanly possible), but instead he draws the history of his sadness. McGregor is lovely and tries hard to be soulful, but he spends half the movie watching his dad and his new gay friends in benign incomprehension, and the other half cautiously falling in love with Melanie Laurent, who plays Anna, a French actress. Most of the time he opens his eyes very wide and looks very, very sad. Laurent is not particularly charming. She lays on the French gamine shtick a bit thick (I will never stop resenting the way French women can put up their mussed up hair and look like they are eternally rolling out of bed and good at the same time). It is not understood why Anna and Oliver, who have a quirky romance in which they roller skate through the carpeted halls of her hotel, and do other immature things like write graffiti on walls (the movie takes place in LA), can't get their act together. It is all ascribed to Oliver's aloof and eccentric mother, and there is some allusion to a dark father on Anna's side. I never understood if he had committed suicide or he was threatening to do so. The little drama there is, however, is rather muffled, because it seems to be a convention of the genre that the characters should be emotionally unintelligible.
Now, a note on hipsters. Some of my best friends are hipsters. Seriously, I have some friends who could be described as such, many of them young, talented, smart and living in Brooklyn. None of them behave like the people in the movies who are supposed to be like them. They don't do cute. If they did, they would probably not be my friends (or I theirs).
For a movie about such a tremendous loss, Beginners failed to move me, and I think the reason is that the main relationships are sketched rather than fully realized, particularly between Oliver and his father. Oliver always keeps himself at a safe remove from his dad, which may be psychologically believable, but it doesn't make for an interesting character. He is rather passive and morose, and as much as McGregor infuses every moment with quiet emotion, it is hard to care for him as he does not allow anyone, including the audience, to know him. This I blame not on the actor, but on the writing and direction.
The movie uses up its meager reserves of charm quite soon after it starts and then repeats itself with precious tropes over and over. Oliver shows his apartment to Arthur the dog, then he shows it to Anna, then Anna shows her hotel room to Oliver, and so on and so forth. It's good to have recurring themes once in a while, but they are not supposed to sound like a broken record.
Let me point out that going in, I had nothing but good faith for Beginners, since I didn't know much about it. Had I known, for instance, that Miranda July was mentioned in the acknowledgements, this would have been a huge red flag for me. Beginners has plenty of her kind of smartypants shtick, although unlike her films, it does not set out to provoke. Quite the contrary, Beginners is too well intentioned to be interesting. I lost my patience at the emotional incoherence in the writing and the navel-gazing je ne se quoi of it all. The movie is more alive whenever Plummer is around. I'm not a super fan of his, but he has undeniable chops. Still, there was something about his final days, the corny camaraderie of his multiculti gay friends and the puppy love of his too cutesy boyfriend (Goran Visnjic) that seemed fake to me. Terminal illness is not only sad, it is quite often horrible. Hal is invaded with cancer, but he looks none the worse for wear. There may be amazing people like him, who have the best attitude and never show an ounce of bitterness, anger, frustration, or regret, but I found the entire situation bathed in too much golden light, so to speak. It would have been more interesting if Hal had not been such a saint. The same goes for Oliver. A dutiful son, an uncomplaining, befuddled guy, he doesn't seem to harbor complicated feelings other than sadness.