I have a general, though not Golden Rule, involving being repetitive in film. You are allowed a particular trick one time. If you try it again, then it leads to disaster. Rex Harrison, a non-singer who managed to win an Oscar for recreating his stage performance in My Fair Lady by 'talking on pitch', tried the same schtick with Doctor Doolittle, one of the worst films to be nominated for Best Picture and whose nomination caused an all-out scandal (though Talk to the Animals is a pretty good song). Rob Marshall directed Chicago to a Best Picture win by having the musical numbers take place inside Roxie Hart's head. He tried this routine again with Nine, and while I have no idea whether this adaptation is true to the original Broadway production people stayed away from Nine in the same way they flocked to Chicago (probably because what had been innovative looked gimmicky the second time round...and Chicago is much better known than Nine).
Now writer/director John Carney has fallen into the same trap. He was the mind behind Once, a lovely Irish tale of making music as two figures create and fall if not in love at least with a shared passion. Begin Again attempts to try the same thing in a different setting, in this case New York. You have two people, a lost man and a lost woman, travelling the city to make beautiful music. I'll say this: the music is great, the movie is lousy.
Gretta (Keira Knightley) has recently lost her longtime boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), a singer/songwriter growing in popularity. At her lowest point, her fellow Brit expatriate Steve (James Corden) gets her to sing an unfinished song, A Step You Can't Take Back. Her performance inspires Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a music producer down on the dumps, recently fired from the company he co-created with his former friend Saul (Mos Def), and estranged from his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), who dresses exclusively at Whores R Us. He hears great potential in Gretta's music and is unaware of her former status with up-and-comer Dave and wants to sign her. She demurs at first but soon agrees, and to create a whole album Dan hires musicians to travel throughout the city and record live in the open thanks to equipment Steve has been given.
Through the recording session Dan doesn't drink as much, Gretta makes something of a peace with Dave, Dan reconciles with his ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), Violet stops looking like a ho and starts acting like a lady, and while Dan gets his job back in the closing credits we see he and Gretta released the album online, causing Saul to fire Dan again.
It's interesting that while Begin Again is only 104 minutes long (or an hour and forty-four minutes), it feels so much longer that it is a hard film to get through. A lot of it feels long because a lot of time is spent doing a musical version of Rashomon, where we get to see the opening scene from three perspectives. It starts with Steve's, merely introducing his friend. Then it goes to Dan's, and then to Gretta's perspective, going back to see how the last two ended up at the bar by detailing their day or in Gretta's case, apparently the weeks and months before. It becomes boring and repetitive, and it feels like the thing is getting stretched and stretched.
Furthermore, Begin Again is horribly predictable, with no real life to it. Who here didn't think Gretta would help Violet turn from being a tramp to a class act? Who here didn't think Dan would rediscover the joy in music (in between shots, of course)?
Add to that some simply appalling performances. I personally hate films where people confuse a lot of swearing with 'honesty' and 'grittiness', and this one had it in spades-full. I understand that people curse (though I don't), but somehow there seemed to be such an excessive amount of it that it soon becomes less shocking and more tedious. Anyway, back to the performances. Ruffalo appears to be coasting, trying to do a variation of the disheveled act he's done before, and all that cursing for once got on my nerves. I've never been a fan of Corden (Tony Award be damned), and the less of him the better. Knightley was actually not bad, but both Steinfeld and Keener were wasted on boring, uninteresting parts.
The surprise was in Adam Levine. I'm no fan of Maroon 5 and I've not seen The Voice, but while Levine isn't an actor yet he did manage to hold his own. I was impressed that he could do pretty good work in front of the camera. I also noticed that when he sings the songs from Begin Again, his voice isn't as high as it usually is. Him playing a singer I figure isn't a stretch but he played well against Knightley, with whom he shared I think all his scenes with. Curiously, another Voice coach, Cee Lo Green, has a smaller part as a rap star whose career began with Dan and who helps him get some musicians for Dan and Gretta's live album.
However, it does make me wonder why Dan didn't go to his friend in the first place.
As for the music, this is worth noting. Begin Again is filled with beautiful songs, from the opening song that so inspires Dan, A Step You Can't Take Back, to the song Dan wrote that Gretta quickly realizes was inspired by another woman, A Higher Place. Other songs that Gretta sings through her sojourn in New York (does that make her an Englishwoman in New York) like No One Else Like You, Tell Me If You Want to Go Home, and Coming Up Roses are also quite good. Even her kiss-off song to Dan that she sends via voicemail, Like A Fool, would all be worth an Oscar nomination.
The one that was actually submitted was Lost Stars, which is also another good song. Based on both the original and the remix versions heard in Begin Again, it has a pretty good chance of being nominated (though I also expect The Lego Movie's Everything is Awesome to pop up come January 15). While not in the same league as Over the Rainbow, The Shadow of Your Smile, or White Christmas, Lost Stars is still a strong song.
Pity the film itself is boring.
Carney might as well have named it Once Again, maybe Once and Again, for it is almost the same movie. Here's my recommendation.
Get the soundtrack. Skip the movie.