Beginners, beyond its pervasive atmosphere of melancholy and loss, suffers from a little self-indulgence. While it‘s not terrible, it‘s your typical indie drama; lots of emotional stuff and not a lot of plot or strong narrative. Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer bring some star power to Mike Mills’ myopic on love and loss, which premiered at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival this week and will be released in theatres on June 3.
McGregor plays Oliver, a 38-year-old man who is dealing with the loss of his father (Plummer) and his inability to find and accept love. Oliver is feeling abysmal and desperate. He’s unhappy, he’s trying to make sense of it all. His father’s dog talks to him, and he takes it everywhere with him. In a series of flashbacks, Oliver re-lives the months leading up to his father Hal’s death. Not only was the announcement of Hal‘s terminal cancer jarring to sensitive Oliver, but upon his mother’s death and after 40 years of married life Hal decided to come out of the closet. He didn’t just suggest he was gay, he celebrated it. He told Oliver he had always known he was gay and he proceeded to get a much younger lover and join a bunch of gay pride groups. Things begin looking up for Oliver when he meets beautiful and enigmatical Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a party and falls head over heels. The question is, will his past keep him from having a successful relationship with any woman?
McGregor and Plummer are both brilliant in their respective roles. If the story had been less self-indulgent and wallowing, I don’t doubt they would have made the film more watchable and reachable. But they were working with a script and a story both melancholy and too self-aware (a mistake I find in many indie dramas). This film felt like it was trying too hard to have that “artistic, indie feel.” For example, Beginners has all these still-shot photo images flashing on the screen, with McGregor’s voice narrating. This is ‘beautiful’ in 1945 (photos of pin-ups from the 40s)…this is ‘beautiful’ in 2003 (photos of current beautiful people)….this is the ‘sun’ in 1945 (picture of the sun in the sky)….this is the ‘sun’ in 2003 (another picture of the sun in the sky)…this is ‘Nature’ in 1945 (older picture of mountains)…this is ‘Nature’ in 2003 (different picture of mountains)… Well you get the picture.
This little interruption in the narrative flow of the film was used more than once, and other “artsy” film tricks like just flashing colored screens and McGregor’s voice saying things like “Nature…Happiness….Love….” What’s that supposed to mean to the audience? Oh, McGregor’s character is trying to make sense of the loss of his father…oh, that’s deep. Then there was the bouncing back and forth in time. The present, then back to the months leading up to his father’s death, and then back further to when he was a child trying to understand the chill between his mother and father.
I realize that hearing the dog’s thoughts is supposed to add some comic relief, and in fact this movie is billed as a comedy/drama. But it simply wasn’t funny enough to warrant the “comedy.” The few comic elements were drowned out by the serious and bittersweet air of what is essentially an hour or two of melancholy reflection. A prolonged musing, if you will.
Writer/director Mike Mills hasn’t had too much experience in writing/directing feature films, as this is only his second after Thumbsucker. Perhaps his experience in documentary shorts and music videos accounts for the artistic feel of the movie and the very successful atmosphere of hopelessness and sorrow. Unfortunately, that same pervasive atmosphere muted the comic elements and made the whole film feel heavy and rambling. Mills’ story comes from his own experiencing with his father and dealing with that loss, and I understand the intimate emotional nature of his film. I just think it’s too self-indulgent to make a successful commercial film, or be relatable to a large audience.
Beginners, beyond its pervasive atmosphere of melancholy and loss, suffers from a little self-indulgence. It‘s your typical indie drama.