Review: Beginners

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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+.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

3 responses »

  1. However, the issue of Plummer’s gayness, which is prominent in the trailer, doesn’t seem to really matter.

    Disagree – I think it’s the crux of the film. The film is constantly comparing his sadness and relationship troubles with those of his parents, who I think are portrayed as good people who are nonetheless trapped by the social stigma against gays of the time. His father was forced to repress his true self and his mother was forced to play a “happy wife” role that she was temperamentally unsuited for, because that’s what society demanded at the time.

    Flash forward to the present, where social conditions are different and the Plummer character is able to finally come out, and for the first time presents a positive example of a happy relationship to his (now-grown) son. I think the movie is a counter-argument to homophobic fears of gay parents and the corrosive influence gay couples would have on kids. It’s asking, well, what about the kids in a repressed household? What are we doing to them and their perceptions of love and partnership?

    I think it’s a very angry film, actually, and a very moving plea for social justice … in addition to being, as you say, a very sweet and incisive romance. I’ll be very surprised if it’s not one of my favorite films of the year.

  2. I saw this a few months ago but never got around to commenting about it here. I’m glad I didn’t as having time to digest it I think about it more favourably than I did then (although I still liked it).

    The big weakness of the movie for mine is the Oliver/Anna relationship. It starts off quite charmingly at the dress-up party where they meet up but it goes off the rails as it descends into irritating 500-days-of-summer quirkiness (e.g. travelling down hotel halls on roller skates) and with not much more insight provided into the relationship.

    But the rest of the film is terrific. Oliver’s parents are superbly and sharply observed. As Brian says, it is quite passionate about the injustice and dissatisfaction these two people had to go through in their lives and it conveys it in an intelligent, sophisticated manner that is rare to experience in modern cinema. Their plight stays in my mind months after having seeing the film.

    While it has some flaws, ‘Beginners’ would be my favourite film of 2011, and the only 2011 cinema release that I’d be prepared to purchase on DVD.

    Rating: A-

  3. Great, Marco. Even with all the Oscar talk for Plummer I think this film is in danger of being mostly overlooked, so I’m glad you saw it and liked it.

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