Friday, July 13, 2012

Video Review: Beginners Offers Low-Key Entertainment But Doesn't Stay With You

One thing I didn't mention in the review is that the dog
occasionally has subtitled thoughts. It's sort of cute.
Beginners is a low-key movie about real people and real emotions, the kind of piece that never really grabs you but that still impresses with its style, restraint and attention to detail. That said, it’s definitely not for everybody. My wife drifted to sleep about half way through, and while I liked the movie well enough, it’s left little lasting impression.

Going in, I’d expected a genial movie with a tour-de-force supporting performance from Christopher Plummer (it won him the Oscar), but that’s not what this is. Plummer plays Hal, a man who decides to come out of the closet at the ripe age of 75 only to soon discover he has terminal cancer. Despite the overt theatricality that could come with such a role, Plummer’s performance, like the movie itself, is delicate and restrained.
The veteran actor does a lot with very little, and is particularly adept at communicating the joy and comfort he takes in being “out,” as well as the underlying regret about having limited time to experience it. This is far from the crowning performance in his legendary career (The Insider really should’ve been the one to bring him the gold*), but it’s an affecting and worthy performance, especially considering his career excellence and the relatively weak competition he went up against last year.
*It’s worth noting that Plummer wasn’t even nominated for his towering performance as Mike Wallace, despite four of five nominees offering inferior work (Tom Cruise’s career-best work in Magnolia is the only one in the same class). The ultimate winner was Michael Caine, an all-time acting great who nevertheless managed to do far less to win that Oscar than Plummer
does here (despite already having one and therefore not having the caveat of being “due”).
Written and directed by Mike Mills, Beginners is a somewhat autobiographical film that focuses on Oliver (a typically strong Ewan McGregor), a sullen artist dealing with the coming out of his elderly father (Plummer) and his subsequent death. Actually, it’s more than that. The film jumps back and forth in time, showing Oliver in three distinct time periods, while also utilizing narration stylistically intercut with Oliver’s sketches for an album jacket and time-appropriate photos from each of the three periods to explore ideas of love, sadness, loneliness, and commitment.
Goran Visnjic plays Hal's young boyfriend. He was on ER.

The time periods include:
·        Oliver’s youth, during which he was far closer to his lonely eccentric mother (Mary Page Keller) than his distant father.
·        The period of time from his father’s coming out to his death, during which they grow far closer and warmer than they ever were.
·        The period of mourning after his father’s death in which he finds himself caring for Hal’s needy dog, attempts to make a grand statement with his art and falls in love with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a quirky French actress.
A great deal of the action occurs in the final period, which is actually the one fictional part of the film. I’ve heard complaints that this portion is too twee, but the connection between McGregor and Laurent is powerful and I found myself enjoying it as much as the section featuring Plummer. It’s mostly an examination of Oliver’s ability to take a cue from his father’s decision to break free from the distancing loneliness of repression and open up to the possibility of love and happiness. Because of that, Anna isn’t fully fleshed out, but Laurent is alluring and relaxed, and contrasted with her excellent work in Inglorious Basterds, her work here is even more impressive. Like Marion Cotillard before her, Laurent is a French actress with real charisma and talent, and I hope to see more of her work.
As I mentioned at the outset, Beginners isn’t all that gripping, but it offers great subtle acting and some well-observed and affecting moments. For Mills, it’s a major step up from his first full-length feature Thumbsucker, which, despite being similarly low-key, quirky and character-focused, was far less effective. B