Directed by John Carney
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden
This film is all about second chances. If you don’t get it from the title, there is the lead actor’s surname, Mulligan. Even so, Begin Again is almost hopeless in the cliched characters and story plots it trots out. He’s the once-celebrated and now down-and-out New York-based independent record producer who chain smokes and drinks non-stop. She’s the talented, fresh-out-of-England songwriter with a voice of gold who would rather be authentic than successful — she is never scruffy and she never lights up. He has a daughter who dresses up provocatively and has boy issues. Till she steps in and rescues both. And then there’s the boyfriend, hers, who finds stardom, goes on a business trip, and betrays her almost instantly.
However, Begin Again has a couple of things that save it from being exposed as a rather half-hearted exploration of the commercial vs artistic conflict. There is Ruffalo, who when not forced to play out the stereotypes of his character, displays intimacy with his estranged wife with just how they share a cigarette. There’s that wife, played by Keener, who responds equally effortlessly. That’s 18 years of marriage for you, right there, including the bra-baring rebel daughter. There’s director Carney himself, who made an almost similar film in 2006, Once. And then there are the songs — touching, simple and sparing, hitting just the notes Begin Again needs.
Ruffalo’s Dan Mulligan hears Knightley’s Gretta sing one day in a bar. The song registers through his drunken stupor enough for the film to render the raw version again with all the musical accompaniments Dan imagines around it. He offers to produce an album for her, Gretta says she is not interested. “I just write songs, once in a while.” But then Gretta goes into flashback, remembers how her rockstar boyfriend Dave (Levine) cheated on her and agrees. Dan’s former partner, however, refuses to give them a deal based on raw songs alone. So, Dan has an idea: they will rustle up instruments, use small-time or out-of-work musicians, and record out on the streets of New York.
However impractical it would be in real life, in Begin Again, all things fall smoothly into place — quite like all the other chips do in the film. Even Dan’s daughter Violet (Steinfeld, suitably surly) is a musical surprise.
But just as a song grows on you, this film eventually nestles into a warm place in your heart. It is helped by the fact that Carney shows a surer grip of his characters eventually, especially in how he handles Gretta’s relationship with both Dan and Dave. The best song of the film falls in Dave’s lap — and that may not be by accident.
Music, Dan says, can lend even mundane things a meaning. It does, it does.