Review: ‘Beginners’

Will Leitch
Father, and son. Focus Features
Father, and son. Focus Features

1. "Beginners" is a movie about grief and love in the abstract rather than the specific, more interested in the music than the words. This can be a bit distracting, because its pain is so cloaked in whimsy that it almost doesn't feel real. (It's not enough for its lead character to be sad; he has to pen a series of cute drawings called "The History Of Sadness." That sort of thing.) The movie has a bit of a too-precious-for-this-terrible-world air about it that is both beguiling and annoying; it is made, after all, by a man married to Miranda July, a woman who made a relationship drama narrated by a cat. I found myself irked by the self-conscious quirkiness and the relative facile nature of the characters. I also found myself moved. Those two statements need not be mutually exclusive.

2. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a cartoonist and artist who's so obviously based on writer-director Mike Mills that he probably should have just been named Mike Mills. Oliver, like countless heroes of romantic comedies written by winsome men before him, is a lonely-hearted romantic who can't ever make relationships work. But he's primarily dealing with the death of his father (Christopher Plummer), who passed just a few years after he came out of the closet. (He waited until his wife died of cancer to live his life as he had always wanted.) When we see Oliver, he's devastated by his father's death, taking care of Dad's cute dog and looking for love. When he meets another classic manic pixie girl, this one with the added advantage of being French (Melanie Laurent), he looks back at his life, his last days with his father, his childhood and his many failures in love.

3. As a character, Oliver's a bit thin; we don't really know or learn much about him other than that he is sad a lot, misses his father and wants desperately to be loved. Also that he appears to share the exact same sensibility as the guy directing the movie he's in. He takes a lot of walks with his dog, looks longingly into the eyes of his love and generally walks around like a man who is too sensitive for this world. That's not a lot to work with. And as enjoyable as the flashback scenes of his father being gay and proud are, I'm not sure, for the sake of this story, the father even needed to be gay; it's certainly not connected to Oliver's mourning of him, and it's not quite tied together thematically well enough with Oliver's inability to keep a relationship going. Instead, it's just charming and cute to watch Christopher Plummer let his freak flag fly. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it leads to the sneaking suspicion that "Beginners" is a movie more concerned with making sure we find its characters lovable than making sure we understand them. That this is Mills' real-life story -- he even draws the pictures in "The History of Sadness" -- is strangely more distancing than it is involving; we end up frustrated that we feel his sadness more than Oliver's. Oliver is not a character; he's a stand-in because Mills couldn't play himself. His wife is a better actor.

4. It sure does help that Oliver's played by Ewan McGregor, though, an actor who, when he turns it on, is a capable of almost infinite depths of likability. He has a natural shaggy-dog lovability and sincerity; it's almost like he's being lit from within and can't contain himself. (In a perfect world, Ewan McGregor would play everyone in the self-written stories of their own life.) Laurent is charming in an underwritten role; at one point, she breaks up with Oliver for reasons we don't understand. We still love her anyway. And Plummer has great fun with his role as the father, taking a cue from McGregor and beaming beatifically throughout; if Mills' dad was really like this, we'd totally want to hang out with that guy too. We'd want to hang out with all these people. That's a lot different than knowing who they are, though.

5. Oliver is sad throughout most of this movie, and his grief is real but never raw, always neatly manicured and attractively packaged. That's far from saying it's ever fake, though; Mills might not inject his lead character with much depth, but he sure never skimps on geniune emotion. This is a film that conveys death and its effects on the living with wisdom that is hard-earned. (There's a quietly heartbreaking scene in which Oliver explains what you do with a loved one's mail after they die.) In fact, I might argue that it understands death better than it understands life; it understands memories more than it understands what to learn from them. That is honest, and true, and a fault of the film: it's a result of tragedy rather than a progression from it. Each character in "Beginners" has one note. They each play that note wonderfully. But that note is all there is. I found "Beginners" charming and affable, and I enjoyed my time with its characters. But when it was over, I was ready to move on, in a way that the characters, perhaps, would find themselves incapable of.

Grade: B