Beginners is a film that walks a tightrope, always threatening to topple into an abyss of preciousness and mawkishness, but it never does. It wobbles a bit, but for whatever minor sins it commits, it had me at the beginning, for the sublimely absurd moment of a man giving a dog a tour of his home, including showing him the bathroom.
Written and directed by Mike Mills, who previously made Thumbsucker, another pretty good movie that could have been an indie nightmare, Beginners is about a man weighed down by sadness, which is not exactly the kind of story that goes over well in pitch meetings. Ewan McGregor is Oliver who, as the film begins, is dealing with his father’s death. We learn, in flashback, that his father (Christopher Plummer), was a closeted gay man who only comes out after his wife dies.
The current storyline for McGregor is his relationship with a French actress, Melanie Laurent, that is one of the most bracingly honest depictions of a fledgling romance that I’ve seen in quite some time. This, even though they spend their first night together with her not speaking, due to laryngitis (they meet at a costume party, where McGregor is dressed as Sigmund Freud–how Freudian). McGregor and Laurent and the writing all exquisitely present an authentic example of how people become instantly enamored with each other.
The film bounces back and forth between McGregor’s last days with his father, who has embraced his homosexuality by finding a much younger lover and working for the gay rights movement, the relationship with Laurent, and a few far-too fleeting scenes of a young Oliver with his eccentric mother (Mary Page Keller), which could be expanded into a movie I would like to see. McGregor is also an artist of some sort, designing a CD package for a band called The Sads, which prompts him to draw a cartoon history of sadness.
All of this is framed in voiceover narration by McGregor, who moves around in time by showing us images from the years in question. This flirts with being too cute, but Mills holds the line. He also gets nervy by having the dog, an adorable Jack Russell terrier, speak in the form of subtitles. (His first line is “I can recognize 150 words, but I cannot talk”). This is the kind of thing that sounds terrible on paper but is actually very funny, and gives the film a likable weirdness that gets it past all the gloominess that surround the characters.
In an interesting coincidence, I saw this film on one of the biggest weekends in recent gay history–a gay pride weekend that was all the more sweeter after the passage of the gay-marriage bill in New York. However, the issue of Plummer’s gayness, which is prominent in the trailer, doesn’t seem to really matter. McGregor is surprised, but it’s not an issue for him, and it isn’t in the movie, either. It’s really almost superfluous, other than to depict a man who, at the age of 75, is finally being who he really is.
Beginners is a sweet, melancholy little movie, with good performances all around (although I look forward to the DVD with subtitles so I can actually find out some of the things Laurent said that I couldn’t make out). And, depending on how things shake out, Plummer may be in the running for an Academy Award nomination.
My grade for Beginners: B+.