Summer Movies: 'Beginners' is a Quirky Tale of Love and Loss
After I saw a late showing of director Mike Mills' exquisitely unconventional, quasi-autobiographical romantic comedy/family memoir Beginners the other evening, I left the theater and walked out into the humid summer night, where a brilliant alabaster half-moon peeked out from behind the clouds and illuminated the near-empty streets. I passed by a sidewalk cafe and noticed a white-haired gentleman in a rumpled tan linen suit and his similarly aged companion in a peasant blouse and a black beret, sitting at a table lingering over drinks. They blithely ignored the waiters folding up chairs and umbrellas around them -- a none-too-subtle hint that it was past closing time -- and continued gazing at each other, wordlessly. It was as if they both knew all of each other's stories already and could communicate the essence of them in a sort of emotional shorthand, with a raised eyebrow or a wistful half-smile conjuring up some long-ago moment. I could scarcely imagine what those stories might be. But it felt good to try.
Sorry -- I know this is not how movie reviews are supposed to start, but I can't help myself because Beginners is the sort of movie that tends to make you suddenly, wonderfully aware of the world around you and all of its delightful texture again. In fact, I urge you to get up from your computer and go out to a theater and see it right now. Don't even bother reading the rest of this review. Okay, I was just kidding about that part. But I'm being totally serious when I say that Beginners is one of those all-too-rare movies that succeeds in being thought-provoking, genuine and poignant, but also painfully funny, often at the same time. And if that's not enough for you, there's an incredibly cute Jack Russell terrier, too.
As romantic comedies go, Beginners is kind of a two-fer deal, because it jumps back and forth in nonlinear fashion between two separate but intertwined stories, one told in flashbacks. It begins with Los Angeles artist Oliver (Ewan McGregor) cleaning out the home of his recently deceased father Hal (Christopher Plummer).
Then the story jumps into the past a few years to shortly after the death of Hal's wife and Oliver's mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller), when Hal abruptly reveals that through several decades of what Oliver had assumed was merely a loveless marriage, Dad had been harboring a secret. He actually is gay and, at age 75, he's coming out of the closet and openly seeking the love that he'd done without for most of his life. Oliver, while troubled and deeply conflicted, tries his best not just to understand, but also to assist Hal's metamorphosis. (Watch for an awkward but funny scene in which Oliver is awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from Hal, who's just returned from his first visit to a gay nightclub and wants to know the name of the "wonderfully loud" music he's been trying to dance to.) Hal finally does find love, in the arms of Andy (Goran Visnjic), a hunky personal trainer a third of his age -- just in time to be diagnosed with the lung cancer that abruptly cuts short his new life.
We then segue back to the present, where Oliver is sleepwalking through his miasma of grief, avoiding friends and baring his soul only in blackly humorous soliloquies that he delivers to Arthur, his father's Jack Russell terrier, who himself seems equally adrift. (Even at the dog park, Arthur refuses to budge from the bench, despite Oliver's tongue-in-cheek exhortations to "go, be with your people.") We learn that Oliver has had a series of failed relationships with women, but unlike Hal, he's despaired of ever finding a sou lmate. But Oliver's morose feedback loop is interrupted when his friends drag him to a party (accompanied by Arthur, who has separation anxiety and raises a ruckus whenever Oliver tries to leave him at home alone).
Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), a nomadic French actress whose marvelously fresh-faced, tomboyish beauty and deft wit barely conceal that she's tormented by family dysfunction and a crash-and-burn romantic history of her own. Can two emotional cripples, who somehow make pessimism seem alluring, and an adorable-but-difficult canine somehow make a go of it? Or is the past, painful as it was, too much a part of Oliver for him to let go?
You'll have to pay your 11 bucks to find out, but you won't regret the expenditure. I've been trying to think of other of my favorite adult-oriented comedies that I could compare it to; Woody Allen's 1977 relationship classic Annie Hall, Wes Anderson's 2001 dysfunctional family saga The Royal Tenenbaums, and Richard Linklater's charming 1995 lost-love story, Before Sunrise, and the equally good 2004 sequel, Before Sunset, come to mind. But those analogies ultimately fall short because Beginners is just too distinctively original. Its characters feel and act like actual people we might know, or at least wish we knew.
That feel of emotional verity may come from writer-director Mills, who -- like his protagonist, Oliver -- had a first career as a graphic artist and whose father, like Hal, came out of the closet at an advanced age. (In this Los Angeles Times interview, Mills confesses that Beginners' blend of real autobiographical detail and imagined events is "interestingly confusing," even for him.) But only a gifted auteur could make such challenging, complex personal material work so deftly on the screen. It's amazing to think that this is only his second film (his debut effort was the 2005 flick Thumbsucker, based on the Walter Kirn novel). I'm hoping that he doesn't go back to designing CD covers and makes more movies, so we can see where his vision takes him.
I'd be remiss if I didn't tout a touching, nuanced and skillfully understated performance by Christopher Plummer, the 82-year-old Canadian-born actor who over the years has appeared on stage and screen in everything from Shakespeare to Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. He's best known, of course, for his role as Captain Von Trapp in the 1965 classic The Sound of Music. He also appears in the upcoming English-language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I'm hoping that Beginners finally snares him the Academy Award that he's so long deserved.
From Hulu.com, here's the trailer for Beginners.
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