After his heartfelt modern musical Once became a surprise hit, winning an Oscar and inspiring a Broadway musical, Irish director John Carney fell off the map with a series of minor efforts that failed to make any impact. He’s now back with Begin Again, another film that focuses on lost people who find a connection through music, only this time it’s a big, glossy Hollywood romcom loaded with big names and pop star cameos.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Dan, a down-on-his-luck record executive who hasn’t signed a new act in years and is on the brink of being fired from the company he started with his best friend Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def). His home life is also a mess; following the break-up of his marriage, he barely sees his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and when he does, she’s hardly enamoured to be spending time with him. Just when it seems Dan’s hit rock bottom, he drunkenly stumbles across a musician in a bar who just might be his ticket back to the big time.
The musician is Gretta (Keira Knightley), an English songwriter who came to New York with her boyfriend Dave Koch (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) after his songs got featured in a movie and he landed a record deal. Dave’s star is on the rise and Gretta quickly discovers he’s been unfaithful through some revealing lyrics in one of his songs. Gretta ditches Dave and moves in with fellow Brit Steve (James Corden), a chirpy busker who pushes her to perform despite her aversion to singing in front of people.
The film opens on Dan’s story, leading up to the moment he sees Gretta perform, before flitting back to tell Gretta’s story up to that same moment. Dan then tries to sign Gretta and wants to make an album with her. She’s reluctant at first but of course he wins her over and they embark on a series of unique recording sessions throughout the city, attempting to capture an authentic, street level sound for Gretta’s strummy, singer-songwriter tunes.
While Dan preaches authenticity and Gretta strives to be a ‘real’ musician who cares only about the art and not her image, Begin Again feels neither real nor authentic. Where Once was a beautifully low-key and lyrical film with characters who felt genuine and powerful songs that evoked real heartache, Begin Again’s characters never feel like anything other than characters in a film, with perfectly grungy designer clothes and meticulously messy apartments that they could never afford.
It’s not that the film isn’t entertaining; it’s an easy and pleasant watch but the lack of any realism prevents it from having the emotional impact it seems to be aiming for. The songs don’t help. While they are capably performed, mostly by Knightley, they are just entirely unexceptional slices of bland, indie-lite pop songs. Once had a handful of memorable songs – Falling Slowly in particular is as catchy as it is moving – but nothing here will live on beyond the end credits.
The film’s saving grace is undoubtedly Mark Ruffalo, whose dishevelled charm provides the film with its only dose of dramatic heft. Ruffalo is a charismatic and likeable actor who instantly has the sympathy of the audience and that quality makes him the perfect fit for this material. If the character is a cliché, it’s through no fault of Ruffalo’s. His scenes with his ex-wife are the most convincing of the whole film with Catherine Keener doing a lot with a frustratingly small role.
The rest of the cast is on point but it’s hard not to be distracted by Levine’s stiff performance and all-too-recognisable falsetto crooning and Cee-Lo Green’s grating cameo as Dan’s most successful act.
Ultimately, Begin Again is an easy-going film about the collaborative qualities of music but any passion or authenticity is hidden beneath a thick layer of gloss. The characters are likeable enough but never ring true and their trajectories are never in question so the narrative lacks any real tension. It’s good natured but in the end, it’s just too flimsy.