Last night, for the first time in literally two years, I watched a movie. A whole one. In one — okay, I did take two lengthy Internet breaks, but still finished it within six hours of starting it, which is huge for me.
The movie was Begin Again, and I found it rather underwhelming.
I should probably have expected it given it was written and directed by the same person who wrote and directed Once. Now, I know, okay, I know it’s weird that I didn’t like Once, but it’s my prerogative to be bored to near sleep by movies, and Once was basically a lot of super repetitive music that I wasn’t that into, telling a story that I wasn’t that into, showing little in the way of past or future or context for its characters, and giving them an understated ending… which I’m never that into.
With Begin Again, at least I was into the music, and the location, and Keira Knightley. I actually like Mark Ruffalo, too, generally speaking. In this movie, he plays a washed-up record label exec who most plot summaries forgo telling us has basically hit rock bottom in his personal life and has some alcohol problems. At the beginning of the movie, when he finds Keira playing a song at a bar, he’s drunk to the point where I’d honestly be really uncomfortable in Keira’s position, if he came up to me talking about how he wants to sign me and waited for me outside the bar. I’d be very, very uncomfortable. I might say sure to having a drink with him because in uncomfortable situations, I tend to let myself be strung along for a while until I notice I need to get the fuck out of dodge, but I’d be uncomfortable.
I will say for the movie that the first five minutes paint a very clear picture that it’s not going to be the rom com you maybe expected from the poster. And it’s not. It’s about how the dude I described above sees this woman playing this song, and he decides he wants to sign her but actually he no longer has any power at his company because his business partner is tired of dealing with a perpetually drunk idealist, and that doesn’t work out but they come up with this idea to record an album with the city as their studio. And Keira’s friend’s equipment that he’s picked up from studios that are closing up. I’m not sure what either Keira or her friend live off of. Mark Ruffalo’s life is fairly contextualized, but Keira’s is pretty fuzzy.
Not necessarily a big deal, that. You get a nice little drama with a hopeful ending and a few sweet songs (which I actually really enjoyed despite Keira’s voice sounding a little less than live), and everyone goes on their merry way. That’s fine if you’re into that.
The reason I was disappointed is… I’m not. I like happy endings and big sweeping romance — not heroic gestures, but swelling music and a kiss is nice. Even when I’m not that into the relationship between the leads, and this one is the kind you don’t get that into, a bit of triumph that’s had some buildup is good. But what Keira gets out of New York is a relationship that suddenly dissolves, and a live-ish album that sells 10,000 copies on its first day of being up for download, online, on her terms. Only she doesn’t want to record an album. She tags along with her musician boyfriend, and it’s implied that sometimes they work together, but she’s just tagging along. The scene where she actually says those words may have been her downplaying her role for the record label execs, but I didn’t get the impression that she wanted to put music out. She cared about integrity and authenticity, but she sounded more like a music fan than a musician there.
In fact, the beginning scene where she plays the song is brought on by her friend (James Corden, who I also like*) putting her on the spot and making her come onstage completely unprepared and despite her saying no multiple times. She actually does kind of get strung along the entire movie, come to think of it. So at the end of the movie, she has an album out and maybe enough money to pay the musicians. And what is she going to do next? There are some vague plans to repeat the city studio thing over Europe, but in the meanwhile? What does she want to do? I’d like to know.
At least she has a face, I guess. And she’s cute when she’s not telling Hailee Steinfeld that she dresses very, very sexy, cough cough slutty cough, and the problem is that she leaves nothing to the imagination and the boy she likes won’t be interested in her that way. Because it was completely necessary to slutshame the teenage daughter, and use her revealing way of dressing as lazy short code for “going off the rails” and “needs a father figure” (clearly stated, because it makes so much sense).
Hailee Steinfeld, though: also really cute. Really the only person in this movie I don’t like is Adam Levine, and he grows facial hair to look varying degrees of douchebag throughout the film, which I did find funny. But I haven’t liked him since that one 99 Problems incident on The Voice with Christina Aguilera, up to which I’d had quite a crush on him and his cardigans on that show. After (during) that incident, my crush crawled into a hole and died.
And on that note, the other thing that rubbed me wrong about this movie was the way the few characters of color were positioned and introduced. There’s Mark Ruffalo’s partner, who’s presented as ungrateful to Mark Ruffalo and a sellout, a bit like a villain; there’s Cee Lo Green, who is very grateful to Mark Ruffalo because apparently Mark Ruffalo gave him his big break, and he helps fund and promote Mark and Keira’s venture; there’s the pretty girl at the record label that Adam Levine leaves Keira for, even though it doesn’t last (these sellout music industry people, so fickle); and there’s the two musicians in the band of misfits Mark and Keira put together, which is composed of them and three white people, and guess who get names and mini introductions and Keira saying she’s making money to pay them and who don’t? It was so glaring. I want to give the benefit of the doubt and think maybe the mini intros for the two black guys were cut in post-production, but come on, really? Really?
My favorite bits were — James Corden and Keira Knightley being longtime friends, I found that really cute; and the movie does do that thing I love so much where it elevates “banalities” (as it calls them) into something worthy of attention by setting them to music — though it mostly only manages that at the beginning and during the scene where it outright talks about how setting banalities to music makes them seem deep and emotional all of a sudden. I’ll give them that.
So basically: watch this movie if you liked Once, probably. The faces are more familiar and the voices a little less raw, if I recall Once correctly, but the cinematography and the general understated realistic (eh) slice-of-life feel (or lack of context and purpose, which is how I read that aspect of these movies, unfortunately) are the same.
Personally, as far as Begin Agains go, I’d rather listen to Taylor Swift.