Friday, July 1, 2011

Mike's Review of Beginners

Son and Lover by Mike Murphy

In recent years, a number of indie-ish films have centred on angsty thirty-something white guys finding redemptive meaning to their lives by falling in love with beautiful but quirky women.  The standout example is Zach Braff’s Garden State (2004), though Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown (2005) fits in, as does the goofier recent variation on the subgenre, Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010).

The new film Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills and starring Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, also fits the category, though it’s a little more grown-up than Garden State and far less light-hearted than Greenberg.  The protagonist of the film is 38-year-old graphic designer Oliver (McGregor), who as the story opens is in a deep depression: he’s grieving the recent death of his father Hal (Plummer) and coming to the sad realization that he, Oliver, invariably sabotages even his most promising shots at love.  

The major difference between this movie and the Garden State template is that Oliver’s progress from malaise to meaning will be catalyzed not by the new love interest—even if the beguiling Anna (Laurent), the jet-setting actress he falls for,  is important in this regard—but through the inspiring example of his father, who after 45 years of monogamous marriage to Oliver’s mother, comes out of the closet following her death to live his final few years,  exuberantly and unabashedly, as a gay man.  (The script is largely autobiographical: apparently Mills’ father made just such an announcement to him after Mills’ mother died).

This is as good a movie as Garden State and a far better one than the egregious Elizabethtown and Greenberg.  For one thing, it’s well acted: Plummer’s performance is polished and smart and McGregor alternates skilfully between emotional opaqueness and vulnerability in his role as Oliver.  For another thing, the script provides a reasonably complex representation of the fulfillments and frustrations of human relations.  Oliver’s affections for his once-repressed, now-actualized father and for the memory of his mischievous, sympathetic late mother (whom we see in flashbacks) are very real; so too, though, is the disillusionment he feels as the son of a passionless marriage, a disillusionment that causes him to hit the relationship self-destruct button every time he gets close to real intimacy and commitment with a girlfriend.
That said, Beginners is by no means an excellent movie. For while Mills seems rightly preoccupied about avoiding formulaic story arcs and clich├ęd answers to life’s big questions, he’s rarely able to substitute for them anything of real originality or depth.  And the result a film that, while not quite formulaic, often lacks narrative and thematic coherence.
A case in point is the film’s closing image, which like the last shot in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) undercuts a moment of triumphant romantic union by having the lovers stare uneasily and at awkward length into the camera. This reminds us of course that in reality no person or couple ever simply lives happily ever, that life and love are messy and unruly processes that continue after the credits roll.  The device works marvellously in The Graduate, but in Beginners it falls flat, mostly because the story of Oliver’s romance with Anna has seemed, alas, all too indie-film formulaic: they meet at an  L.A. hipster party; they bond over spontaneous whimsical white people activities (ironic graffiti, authentic taco-stand Mexican food, roller skating); she confides in Oliver, in a throwaway aside, that she  has a suicidal and creepy father who’s always calling at odd hours.  I will allow that in these jaded times, in which far too many of the representations of human sentiment we see are in fact cell phone commercials, it’s not easy to invent a captivating and convincing love story.  But that of Oliver and Anna in Beginners falls far too short of the mark.

Cinematographically, Beginners is—like Oliver’s wardrobe, car, and home decor—stylishly retro.  The scenes in which he and Anna get to know each other in her elegant but impersonal hotel room, for instance, effectively evoke the romantic languor romance of Paris hotel rooms in Nouvelle Vague cinema.  Unlike these tastefully shot sequences, Mills’ repeated use of still image montages, with Oliver doing voice-over, is aesthetically inept.  This motif sets up an opposition between the film’s present, 2003, and the year in which Oliver’s parents got married, 1954, by, for example, contrasting official portraits of the American presidents of each era, Eisenhower and Bush.  Suffice it to say that while this device does the job of putting Oliver’s connection to Anna in the context of his parents’ relationship, it also suggests (along with Mills’ use of 50s Life magazine images of the American nuclear family and archival footage of key moments in gay rights history) a historical and political consciousness that this film absolutely and categorically does not have.

Beginners’ greatest strength is its sensitive portrayal—both in terms of script and acting—of a complicated, sometimes vexed, but ultimately loving father-and-son relationship.  It doesn’t even begin, though, to reinvent the indie boy-meets-girl story.  Or to add a historical/political dimension to its exploration of why privileged white guys are so upset.

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