You know that army of cinephiles who spent the back-half of 2007, plus the years since, talking about how Once is a great movie? I’m in the clique. So, with the arrival of writer-director John Carney’s follow-up Begin Again, I admit to worrying of late that maybe Carney merely found magic in a bottle.
Begin Again takes the soft, easy-going atmosphere he brought to Once and layers on top of it movie stars and a more lavish city in the form of New York City. By description, the movie almost sounds like an American remake of Once. Where originally there were two strangers who meet and bond over their shared love of music and broken hearts, neither one of much stature, here it’s two strangers doing all of that same stuff, only with each being tied to significant record companies.
First up is Mark Ruffalo’s Dan, a drunken mess of a man whose record company no longer wants him, and having bought out his shares, is happy to get rid of him. With an ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) that barely put up with him, Dan is left to fumble around the city claiming what he really cares about are real musicians and not processed, bubblegum pop-stars. One night in a bar, Mark sees an English singer-songwriter by the name of Gretta (Keira Knightley). Though talented, Gretta has no desire to put up with the bullshit of the industry or its expectations. Not helping the matter is her five-year relationship to her musician boyfriend (Adam Levine) which just faltered alongside his booming success.
Dan sees something in Gretta; a chance to get back into the good graces of his former company and craft some genuine art along the way.
It’s all a bit earnest and at times threatens to become a bit too heart on its sleeve. Yet, Carney’s knack for bringing out tender, intimate performances gives his movie a beating heart which allows said earnestness to resonate. Sure, the whole concept of the pair deciding to record an album together in the natural sounds of the city is a bit strained, especially considering the fact that it’s established that Knightley’s roommate can do the whole ordeal in his apartment. That’s missing the forest for trees though. Yes, the music doesn’t have the rawness the film states it desires, but the storytelling does.
Ruffalo is good here, using his tender, big-talker persona that he used to great effect in The Kids Are All Right. It’s Knightley’s show though, as she gives perhaps her loosest performance to date. Knightley has proven her talent at playing whip-smart and tense characters; her Gretta is sort of a revelation. The scenes she shares with her roomie (the excellent James Corden) are playful and engaging. As she drunkenly recalls the troubled history with her ex-boyfriend to Corden’s sympathetic ear, Knightley giggles and flails like a person whose fed up with the nonsense of life. She’s been a romantic interest, a wife, a heroine and damsel in distress; this is the first time Knightley has been someone you’d like to be best friends with.
Through it all Carney has an array of strong original songs for his misfit crew to sing, as he hovers around these two people trying to figure out what’s the next step in their lives. That it isn’t the obvious one is one of the picture’s simple pleasures as it knows love isn’t a passing fancy. Once more, Carney has shown that finding resolution in heartbreak is a powerful thing.