It’s difficult to have particularly strong feelings about Begin Again. It’s a simple and easy film that doesn’t push any boundaries or cause a lot of drama, but while it’s playing, it’s pleasant enough that you probably won’t notice. It’s inoffensive, feel-good, and it has some catchy songs. Right. I should mention that Begin Again is something of a musical, and that it’s much the same as the director’s previous film, Once.
The plot goes like this: Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a record executive who hasn’t signed a new talent in a couple of years. He’s estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), he’s broke, and he might be depressed. As the film begins, he gets fired. He heads to a bar, and on-stage he hears Greta (Keira Knightley) singing a song. He believes that she has the talent to make it big, and after the show approaches her with an offer: He wants to record an album with her. They wind up doing just that, although with barely any money, no studio, and recording all around the city.
Or, they will do that, but first we have to go through the back stories of both leading characters. We inorganically travel back in time to see how each of these people wound up getting to this point in life. Most of the time is spent with Greta, as she came to American with her boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), who wound up leaving her. She was a day away from leaving the city and flying back to England, but then Dan convinces her to stay to do this album thing.
The basic idea is that this album will provide a fresh start, retribution, or some other method of moving on for its lead characters. Dan will get to find resolution with his family and find out if he still wants to be involved with the music industry, while Greta will find out that her entire life wasn’t tied to Dave, while also finding her voice, so to speak. Once the various plot threads begin to show up, you can see exactly where they’re going to end. The movie is predictable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s boring.
There are a few nice surprises to be found that keep Begin Again watchable. The first is the interesting pairing of Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. This isn’t your typical romantic pair, which helps things feel fresh. They have a good chemistry together, but there isn’t anything overtly romantic in respect to how they feel about each other. It would have been so easy to have them fall in love, end the film with a kiss, etc., but Begin Again doesn’t take that route. Maybe they do fall in love, but it’s not something upon which we dwell.
The songs are another reason to keep watching Begin Again. After we get past the back story, we are treated to more than a few songs, most of which are pleasant and easy to listen to. Hearing Keira Knightley sing is far better than one might expect; she can certainly belt out a tune. Adam Levine is seemingly in the film just for his vocal contributions, but his acting isn’t horrible, either, even if he is probably playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself.
Begin Again has structural problems. The montage in which the group’s band is brought together is laughably awful. For some reason, we have to see Greta and Dan’s first encounter at the bar three times, with only slight changes — that don’t make much difference. The back stories are contrived and really didn’t need to be anywhere near as long as they are. Any character not named “Greta” or “Dan” is so painfully underwritten that they almost don’t need to exist. Even Adam Levine’s character, someone who drives a good chunk of the plot, could have been written out with a throwaway line or two.
Very little about Begin Again truly feels sincere. It’s easy to like if you’re not in a mood to think about it too hard, but it’s all so simple that it really does become tough to take seriously. Everything falls into place without much difficulty, there’s rarely any conflict, and you’re basically here to listen to some music and feel good about stuff for 90 minutes. That’s fine, and there’s certainly an audience for these types of films, but it’s something worth mentioning.
Begin Again is an easy film to digest, but if you start to think about it too hard, you’ll wind up realizing it’s really not thinking about. It’s predictable, simple, and everything falls into place way too easily. But it has some catchy music, a couple of good surprises, and an interesting pair of leads — even if all of the other characters are woefully underwritten and almost superfluous. Begin Again will appeal to a specific type of audience, and if you don’t fall into that group, you likely shouldn’t watch it.