“Begin Again” is one of those romantic overcoming adversity fantasy films that is just grounded enough for you to suspend disbelief. I loved it.
Irish film director John Carney originally broke onto the scene of small, warm, musically-themed films with his “Once”, a delightful drama of two mismatched musicians in Dublin who go against the odds. With “Begin Again”, the action switches to New York City, and he has enlisted a strong cast to tell a similar story. The result is highly entertaining and upbeat, guaranteed to make you believe that yes, your dreams are possible.
Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is a former music executive who co-founded an independent label with partner Saul (hip hop artist Mos Def), but has fallen on hard times: separated from his wife Miriam (the ever strong Catherine Keener), he wanders the streets in an alcoholic haze and tries vainly to be a father to his 14 year old daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Gretta (Keira Knightly) is a sensitive singer-songwriter who has come to New York with boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine from Maroon 5), who in turn becomes a star, and in turn leaves her.
On her planned last night in New York, Gretta reluctantly takes the stage at an East Village nightclub to sing one of her songs, cajoled by old British friend Steve (James Corden). That’s where Dan hears her, and the result is a magical scene where Dan can hear and envision all of the instrumentation behind Gretta’s song. Director Carney does a neat job of presenting both Gretta’s and Dan’s stories to us (neatly filling in the backstories of the day leading to their propitious first meeting).
From there the film takes a familiar, but still highly satisfying course. Yes, Dan convinces Gretta to stay in New York City, and yes he produces an album of their songs. But the gimmick is that because they don’t have enough money to afford a studio, they record the songs at various locations around the city: on a subway platform, on boats on Central Park lake, in an alleyway, and on a rooftop with a view (of course) of the Empire State Building.
No prizes for guessing the outcome, nor for the inevitable Gretta-Dave reunion, nor for how daughter Miriam’s life is changed, etc etc.
Sound predictable? Perhaps. But the true delight in “Begin Again” is the film’s irrepressible good humour, absolute adoration of modern music (writer/director Carney used to play bass for an Irish rock band, so he knows what he films) and an almost pitch-perfect cast. Ruffalo is a great music exec who needs to prove himself again; Knightly, singing with her own voice, brings just the right combination of vulnerability, energy and style to her role; Keener virtually defines the ever-suffering former wife; Steinfeld is the adolescent daughter needing direction and attention; Corden is the perfect “best friend” who has just what Knightly’s character needs; and as real-life musicians both Mos Def and Adam Levine play important roles. If we did not believe the tension between Def’s character and Ruffalo’s, nor if we did not believe the Levine-Knightly relationship, the film would not have worked. Yet it does.
“Begin Again” is about … yes, rebirth, following ideals and the possibility (indeed the necessity) of reinvention. Director Carney understands this basic element of the American character, and brings it to screen in such a buoyant way that we cannot help being charmed into liking both the film and all of its characters.