Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Beginners 'begins' well...then gets lost

I mentioned last month that I was really looking forward to seeing The Beginners starring Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent. Partly this was driven by my love of Christopher Plummer, whom I saw live at Stratford several years ago, and who is consistently an incredible actor. Partly it was driven by amusement at the trailer (I'm a sucker for talking animals). And finally the promise of Melanie Laurent, whom I still think was the strongest part of Inglorious Basterds.

The film's pacing certainly builds tension in a fairly simple story of one son's difficult relationship with his parents. Starting after the death of his father, Oliver (McGregor) tells the story of his childhood with his mother (also deceased) and of the development of his relationship with his father Hal (Plummer) through his diagnoses and eventual death of lung cancer. The story of their budding understanding begins with Hal's admission to Oliver that he is gay and that he knew this was the case through the entirety of his marriage to Oliver's mother. Starting from this point the film examines Hal's exploration of his sexuality and new-found freedom, inter-cut with the journey Oliver is forced to take following his father's passing.

Accompanied by his father's faithful Jack Russel Arthur (an all too obvious representation of his conflicted feelings and grief), Oliver is forced to re-acclimate himself to the real world following the painful deterioration of his father's condition. Each time Oliver attempts to go back to his life and start living it by leaving Arthur behind, the Jack Russel kicks up such a fuss that Oliver is forced to take the dog with him, to parties, to work; everywhere. While Oliver does an admirable job of taking care of Arthur and trying to work him into his daily life, it is only after he meets and falls for Melanie Laurent's character Anna that he seems able to (get ready to collectively groan) live with his grief.

Laurent's character by comparison is a layered representation of a modern woman, all too similar to Oliver's own mother in her zest for life and breaking the rules. While their relationship is not particularly compelling, I can't fault Laurent for it as her performance is natural and engaging (if a little predictable). By comparison, McGregor's performance seemed stunted, by the numbers. Surrounded by such talented actors one would think that McGregor--who has in the past brought me to tears-- would be up to the task but he seems lifeless, almost boring in this role. Perhaps because a lot of his time onscreen is framed by voice-overs, but ultimately Oliver seems to be so busy concentrating on the things going on in his life, he has forgotten to be a person. Even the dog has more personality than he does.

There's a lot of good stuff here, lots of angst and potential material to mine stories from but the film seems to just graze surface in favour of cutesy storytelling. While I was fact checking for this review I came to the realization that the film is semi-autobiographical; director Mike Mills' own father announced his homosexuality shortly before being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Perhaps that is the reason we don't seen more of the difficulty in the relationship, more of the angst. What individual can mine their own life for story fodder and not want to hold a little back. While I sympathize with how hard it must have been to direct a movie about such a difficult topic, this makes me even more dissappointed that Mills was not able to be more open with his audience. If only he'd been able to surrender himself, think what a glorious film that would have been. Heart wrenching, I imagine.

In the end, the film felt unfinished. As if it began but never found its ending. But perhaps that's the point?

My rating: 2.5 out of 4

1 comment:

  1. It makes me sad to hear that you didn't like this. The trailer made it look like it could be a really special movie. Your review makes me a little less excited to see it.