Beastly Reviews: Begin Again

Begin Again is a sweet indie about two screwed-over people: a young songwriter, Gretta (Keira Knightley) — freshly wounded by her asshole rock star boyfriend (Adam Levine in his film debut) — and washed-up music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo).

Dan has a crumbling relationship with his ex-wife and has recently been fired from the record label he founded. Dan’s character profile suggests he’s slimy, but Ruffalo delivers a sincere, humane version of the urban con artist — a down-on-his-luck creative who’s out of ideas and out of love. I can’t remember why he was fired but it might have been drinking. That sounds right.

Stumbling into an East Village bar one night, Dan discovers Gretta at the mic — bared, fragile, singing about heartbreak. Gretta is chic and charming but not convincingly a standout singer — Knightley’s voice works for airy bops, but I doubt any record producer would consider her the next big thing.

But Dan does. He asks her to sign to his label, which she refuses. After some convincing, she agrees to make an album, but only on her terms. Together, they make an album that showcases the sounds of New York City (we’re never really told why). They record songs live in the street, in public places, in alleyways, in Central Park. It’s cute, and some songs are somewhat catchy, but the end result is less of a romantic drama and more of a “making of” featurette for a music album.

I’ve never lived in New York, but I have a hard time believing people there are this genteel, this chipper at hearing a band playing outside their bedroom windows. I understand the film’s romantic intention: two wayfaring nobodies in the Big Apple trying to find themselves and eventually arriving at a deeper understanding of life. I’m just not sure that’s enough to hang a film on.

There’s a delightful bit where Gretta and Dan share earpieces and walk around the city listening to Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be A Lady”, and at this point, I realized that the film is attempting to be a love song to the city that never sleeps. At that moment, Dan and Gretta’s personal stories immediately lose impact and importance. Their narratives wrap up nicely, they come to some semblance of resolution in their respective problems, and they become friends. And that’s when I started yawning.

Many films have attempted to be love songs to New York: 2008’s New YorkI Love You, 1989’s New York Stories, and the best, the 1998 documentary The Cruise. In comparison, Begin Again feels a little too precious and uncertain of itself. The film makes the city look pretty and clean, as gentle as the breathy, acoustic songs Gretta sings. Everyone acts very surprised and happy to see a band playing in the street as if it’s uncommon for musicians to appear on the sidewalk in New York.

Again, I never lived there, but where’s the stink? Where’s the grime? Where’s the corporatism and hunger? I don’t believe this picture of New York. It’s too happy and never packs a punch, never makes us hurt. In criticism, you want someone to think your work is the worst thing in the world or the greatest thing in the world because the most defeating response is something in the middle: “It’s OK.”

Begin Again is OK. The ending leaves us waiting for a resolution we didn’t know we needed and for some sense of drama that was never present. It never demands too much of us and vanishes as gently as it began.

Love, Beastly

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