by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Begin Again is the movie you accidentally catch on some ITV channel or whatever on a Tuesday night and you sit through because there’s nothing else on. You know the one; it’s all pleasant, its cast is all fine and have decent chemistry, it ambles along sufficiently for its hour and forty run-time engaging you just enough to keep you from flipping the channel but not enough to keep your mind from wandering to other more important matters. Matters such as “I wonder if Sharon really will be able to make it work with Chris” or “God, I really don’t want to go to Dave’s party this weekend” or “I should be doing something with my life.” It’s not a film for cinemas, one you rush out to opening day and honestly not even one you go to at reduced prices time because there’s nothing else on (both at the cinema and in your life) and you have a burning need to get rid of the cash in your pocket. It’s the film you catch on TV for free with ads by accident one random night of the week when you’re half-drunk/totally-bladdered and need something to take your mind off stuff.
That sounds harsher than I intended. The film is fine. Begin Again is fine. It’s fine. There’s just nothing going on and nothing of substance worth talking about anywhere. Mark Ruffalo plays a once-hot-now-not A&R guy who gets fired from the label he co-founded and, in another one of his drunken stupors, stumbles across songwriter Keira Knightley when she’s forced by her friend (James Corden) at an Open Mic night to perform one of her songs. He thinks she’s got what it takes to make it on her own, she’s coming off a bad break-up with her songwriter boyfriend of five years who’s just broken through as a performer (Adam Levine). Together, after Mark’s old label rejects her because the head of the label (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) doesn’t get what’s so special about her, they cook up a plan to record an album in various places around New York City. Feel free to question the soundness of that idea, considering the noises provided by any city space let alone New York, cos I certainly did. Frequently, even.
But, eh, the film’s fine. It moves along at a good enough pace, only really stopping every so often to demonstrate one of its numerous songs. Things pretty much go how you’d expect, example: Hailee Steinfeld (oh, hey! Nice to see her again) is in this as Mark’s estranged daughter who lives with her divorced mother (Catherine Keener) and plays guitar, Keira suggests getting her involved with a track on the record but Mark quietly isn’t sure if she’s good enough and you can guess how everything with everyone turns out. The most engaged I was with proceedings came very late on when I was terrified that they were going to turn Keira and Mark’s platonic friendship into a romantic relationship; you may laugh, but I have been burnt too many times before on this kind of thing. It has one relatively original idea of its own, looping back to the Open Mic night and focussing on a different character and their feelings towards the performance each time (Mark’s version has him visualising how Keira’s song could sound with swelling studio backing and it’s the one genuinely interesting part of the film), but it ditches the idea at about the halfway part and moves onto a series of song recording episodes with perfunctory drama/relationship interludes.
Songs are predominately written by (and credited to) late 90s/early 00s pop songwriter and ex-New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander and they’re fine. Nothing world-shattering but they’re all good slices of soft pop, more specifically the kind that people like David Gray and Damien Rice and the like peddled at the turn of the century. They’re a bit samey and the lyrics alternate between being really clunky and a game of “Guess What Thuddingly Predictable Line Is Coming Next,” but they have hooks, are all quite soothing and Keira Knightley’s voice fits in very well with that kind of genre. They’re all weirdly over-produced, though, which makes a late-film scene where she’s listening to Adam Levine’s album and claims that it’s over-produced rather hypocritically funny seeing as she’s just produced an album slathered in unnecessary strings, a one-off and tonally out-of-place guitar solo and a backing choir of street kids. “Lost Stars”, though, which appears in something like three different arrangements and is clearly supposed to be the film’s breakout hit, is a genuinely great ballad (in the stripped down Keira Knightley case) and a genuinely great pop song (in the Adam Levine case), even if the latter version leans a bit too close to “Drops Of Jupiter” by Train, for my liking.
Other than that, the film’s as Ann as the nose on plain’s face. Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley are enjoyable enough screen presences to keep the whole film feeling pleasant (even if Ruffalo seems forever half-engaged and half-rabbit-in-the-headlights), proceedings never drag and are never truly dull, the songs are fine, the cinematography and John Carney’s direction are competent if uninspired… it’s all fine. Nothing’s bad, nothing’s offensive, everything’s pretty much just OK. I mean, if you just have to see a brand new film this week and Boyhood isn’t being shown, I guess you could go with this one. It’s fine. The film is fine. Begin Again is fine. Nothing more, nothing less, it’s fine.