I am a gigantic fan of Once, a small budget Irish musical that one an Oscar for best song.
Now the same writer/director John Carney has a slightly higher budget and once again tells a story about lost people finding themselves and each other through music.
Begin Again is about two broken people, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Gretta (Keira Knightly). Dan is a divorced, functioning alcoholic who has just been fired from his own music producing company. Gretta has just been dumped by her longtime boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) with whom she collaborated on song writing before his career took off. Both end up in a dive bar where Gretta performs and Dan hears greatness in her music and wants to produce her album. What follows is an exploration of music and life.
In one scene, Dan hears Gretta play for the first time. And we get into Dan's head how he can hear all of the accompanying instruments creating a fuller, more realized version of the song. It struck me as a beautiful way to show how the right people can literally harmonize with your music to take it to the next level.
What this movie gets right is how music not only adds flavor to life, but it is an expression of life itself, the good and the bad. Gretta has something to say and Dan wants to get away from the overly produced and manicured sounds. He wants something raw and emotional. And the music in the movie, while never getting to the soul-stirring level of Once, acts as an emotional catalyst.
Part of the struggle is that Dan is not very likable. Ruffalo plays him with an affable charm, but he comes off as an angry, scuzzy guy. But as the movie unfolds, the script and Ruffalo show the layers that help us understand him. And there is no doubt he and Knightly have great chemistry. Dan sees something pure and redemptive in her and it inspires him to be better.
One of the things I liked about this movie was that it treated marriage, even broken marriage, with some real weight. Dan and his ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) fight often, but have some real chemistry as well. In addition, there is something sad about the brokenness of the family, especially with the slightly lost teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Stanfield). And as Dan and Gretta are drawn closer together, the movie never lets you forget that he has been ripped from another life.
The most annoying thing in the movie is an extended cameo by Ceelo Green. Not only can he not act at all, it seemed so pandering to the audience. There is also a line early on in a song where Gretta sings that you shouldn't talk to God because he won't answer back. But this is earlier in the movie when she is at a low point. In fact, right before Dan finds Gretta someone tells him that God will speak to him if he listens, which makes the song lyric more ironic than cynical.
Overall, Begin Again falls short of the raw musical and emotional power of Once. But it is an admirable and emotionally satisfying movie musical experience.
3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.