By NATHAN LERNER
“Begin Again” explores the collaboration that ensues between two total strangers, a songwriter and a record label executive.
The film kicks off with a depiction of an open mic night at a decidedly downscale club in New York City. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is beckoned onstage by her buddy, Steve (James Corden), who is the event emcee. She expresses reluctance, but eventually relents. Her performance is greeted with polite indifference from an audience that she fails to engage.
The audience contains a single exception. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is wildly enthusiastic about her. The film posits that he is somehow capable of recognizing her raw talent. After all, he has a background as an A & R guy in the record industry. In his mind, he can supposedly imagine Gretta’s stripped down acoustic song enhanced with sophisticated production values.
Dan introduces himself to Gretta and expresses an interest in enhancing her career. However, Gretta spurns Dan’s offer, even rudely returning his business card. When Dan suggests that she would benefit from polishing her performing and interactive skills, Gretta responds with overt hostility. As Gretta stridently insists, she isn’t even a performer, just someone who occasionally writes a song or two.
This becomes the recurrent theme of the film. According to Gretta, she composes songs for her own benefit and the enjoyment of her cat. Gretta insists that she simply doesn’t care whether anyone likes her songs or, for that matter, ever hears them. She is obsessed with authenticity and adamant that her songs be presented as low-fi affairs. Moreover, Gretta expresses a hostile attitude toward the pragmatic realities of the music industry.
Does it make any sense that Dan would persist in pursuing Gretta? Wouldn’t her unfettered negativity and philosophical absolutism be sufficient to dissuade him?
The film then does a double flashback of Dan’s and Gretta’s respective days. These explicate how the co-protagonists ended up in their fateful meeting.
Dan is a dissolute and depressed drunkard, who is separated from his rock journalist wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener) and estranged from his adolescent daughter, Violet (Haillee Steinfeld from “True Grit”). Once upon a time, he had founded a successful indie label. There, Dan had won two Grammies for producing hip hop albums by Troublegum (CeeLo Green). He has been forced to sell his share of the label to his partner, Saul (rapper/actor, Mos Def, listed as Yasmiin Bey). Earlier that day, Saul was forced to fire Dan.
Gretta has come to the United States from England, accompanying her recently signed musician boyfriend (Adam Levine from Maroon 5). Adam returns from an L.A. junket and plays a song for her that he has just composed. In yet another of the film’s many egregious absurdities, Gretta somehow intuits that he had written the tune for another woman. Outraged, she slaps him in the face. One thing leads to another. It culminates with rock star boyfriend terminating the relationship and kicking her out of their apartment. So Gretta has also had one helluva of a day.
From the outset, Knightley’s character is a solipsistic bore. Gretta considers herself an artiste, who is above it all. Knightley’s acting consists of facial grimaces and jutting her prominent jaw into an even more exaggerated position. I couldn’t decide which was more annoying, the formulation of Knightley’s character or her mannered performance.
Previously, John Carney was lauded for the film, “Once,” which he wrote and directed. It involved a Dublin busker and his evolving relationship with a songstress from Czechoslovakia. It garnered the 2008 Oscar for its oft-played best original song, “Falling Slowly.” The film also spawned an off-screen romance between its leads, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglova.
“Begin Again” lacks whatever merit Carney’s prior film contained. The screenplay is bizarrely farfetched. This is epitomized by a vignette in which Dan is recording an outside performance by Gretta in a Gotham alley. He needs some back-up singers. Conveniently, it just so happens that some street urchins playing nearby are able to provide the missing vocal ingredient to the tune. Really?
Despite its abbreviated running time, “Begin Again” dragged and lacked any sense of narrative focus. Ironically, while consumed with the notion of artistic integrity, this film is a total contrivance. Through Gretta, the film makes persistent pretentious pronouncements about the purity of the creative process. However, all of her pontificating rhetoric is a bunch of phony baloney.
Perhaps, “Begin Again” could have been somewhat salvaged by an effective denouement. Unfortunately, such an ending never eventuated.
Before being redubbed, this film was originally titled, “Can a Song Save Your Life?” The real question that remains is whether anything have saved this ill-conceived film?
*1/2 R (for language) 104 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.