Friday, June 24, 2011

A Winning BEGINNERS ...


- Amidst all of the big, loud, crazy summer blockbusters, we often get some smaller, quieter, indie flicks that give an early preview of what Oscar season might look like. Here, to me, is one of those Oscar-worthy gems - a movie that I'd urge everyone to seek out and soak in. Beginners isn't perfect, but it's a funny, poignant, thought-provoking little film that I really enjoyed.

Beginners tells the story of a father and son - Oliver and Hal - and their respective journeys through different stages of life. Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, is a graphic artist and a perpetual commitment-phobe. Despite nearing 40, he's living what seems like the life of a twenty-something - no real attachments, no real prospects, just sort of adrift. Meanwhile, his father, Hal - played by an outstanding Christopher Plummer - is 75, and, following the death of his wife, has revealed to his son and to the world at large that he is, in fact, gay. Finally, after a lifetime of repressed feelings and of hiding his true self, Hal can begin his life's third and final act - and it's poised to be his best one yet. However, Hal is struck by a cruel twist of fate. Just when he is finally free to live life the way he wants to, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. And so Beginners is a story about siezing the moment, about valuing the time you have, and about making the most of each day. As Oliver looks back on his father's final years, it inspires him to finally make changes to his life that have been a long time coming as well. After meeting an alluring French woman at a party, Oliver looks to his dad's example. Like Hal, can Oliver turn a corner and start a new chapter? Or will he stay stuck in a rut?

Beginners could have been sappy and preachy, but it's mostly anything but. The key is a funny, sharp script that cuts to the core of a lot of the eternal, Big Questions that so many movies touch on, but fail to address in any truly meaningful or insightful way. I think most people will come away from the film seeing something of themselves in Oliver, and maybe even Hal. It helps that the actors bringing these characters to life do a uniformly phenomenal job. For one thing, Christopher Plummer is outstanding as Hal, and this is really one of those roles-of-a-lifetime for him, I think, even in a career filled with notable turns. Plummer and Ewan McGregor also have a great chemistry together - filled with touching but also oftentimes hilarious banter between them. Hearing the senior Plummer tell his son about his first experiences at a gay night club, for example ... you can't help but crack up at the newly-liberated - but still wizened and dignified - Plummer's observations. McGregor also has a great, dynamic chemistry with Melanie Laurent, who plays Anna - his new girlfriend. At first, Laurent's Anna seems like the stereotypical manic-pixie-dreamgirl type (with a foreign French twist), but the script does a great job of giving her a lot of depth and dimension as the movie goes on. Some of her initial quirkiness borders on cheesy, at first, but again, the movie takes great pains to peel back the layers and make her feel real and alive. What Beginners does so well is depict all the little moments in Oliver and Anna's relationship that are in fact Big Moments. The movie expertly shows us the evolution of their love story with slice-of-life scenes that are moving, funny, and almost always authentic-feeling. Laurent is great in the role, and again, does a great job of making Anna more than just a magical foreign princess - she isn't afraid to deglamorize the character at times and show her different sides.

Meanwhile, writer/director Mike Mills presents the film as a tapestry of images and scenes, weaving back and forth between different time periods and characters, not sticking to any strict, linear form of storytelling. It's a neat trick, and Mills mostly pulls it off - gradually shifting the focus of the film from a father-son story to a love story, but always keeping the lessons of Hal the father looming in the foreground. The one area where the movie sometimes tiptoes into pretentiousness is when Mills presents collages of the years in which certain events take place. As we flashback to 1955, for example, we see images of the politics, the pop-culture, the society of the time. Sometimes it can get to be a bit much, but mostly, I think it does help to put some of the film's elements into a sort of larger cultural context. It's interesting to see how Hal and Oliver's respective struggles with identity are, in many ways, directly tied to the eras in which they came of age. I think we all look back and contrast the era we live in now to that in which we grew up, and that in which our parents grew up. To that end, Mills unique, at times artsy directorial style works - it certainly gives you a lot to think about. I think I probably could have done without some of the more surrealist touches (Oliver's nonsequiter conversations with his dog were a little much), but again, I really appreciated the movie's nontraditional storytelling style overall.

Mostly, Beginners does a fantastic job of mixing humor with pathos, and about three quarters through the movie it builds to an emotional crescendo that will have just about anyone getting a bit misty-eyed. What I liked about the film though is that it never felt overly manipulative - it builds the drama and the characters subtlely and carefully, and you can't help but find yourself rooting for Hal, for Oliver and Anna. I do think that the movie reaches a point that would have made for a powerful ending, but then, as often happens, the movie goes on for another twenty minutes or so, outstaying its welcome just a bit. But even if it drags a little at the end, Beginners kept me captivated for most of its running time. And it really struck me emotionally more than any movie I've seen in a while. Like I said, there is humor and quirkiness, but there's also an emotional intensity to the movie that snuck up on me. I think it's thanks to the great performances and to the smart, authentic-seeming script. Ultimately, this is a sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but ultimately life-affirming sort of movie that I highly recommend.

My Grade: A-

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