Personal Becomes Problematic in 'Beginners'
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Folks will either embrace the "real" in Mike Mills' biographical "Beginners" or recoil from the reek of indie twee. Though drawn from the director's life-altering personal experiences, this amiable dramedy seems oddly lightweight and remote. A strung-together series of vignettes, montages and threadbare French New Wave tropes, the movie could have been storyboarded by Oliver (Ewan McGregor), Mills' cartoonist alter ego, who inks a Jules Feiffer-esque comic strip titled "The History of Sadness."
Alternatively, given the filmmaker's background in music videos and conceptual art projects (the film also showcases Mills' painting), this mellow remembrance of things past can be enjoyed as a music video for "Stardust Memories," crooned by the inimitable Hoagy Carmichael during a flashback.
The narrative is bone-thin: the dad of thirtysomething Oliver coming out at 75, dad dying of cancer, Oliver finding and fleeing love. So Mills pads the story by blenderizing chronology and occasionally inserting coy historical slideshows ("This is 1955. This is what happiness looked like in 1955. This is the President ... ."). Slideshows, cartoons, billboard, graffiti, photographs -- "Beginners" is overstocked with mediated versions of reality. Instead of inviting us to get up close and personal with its lost boy, the movie feels like performance art showcasing significant moments in Oliver's history. Something like distance, and a hush, muffles the tour, as though curator Mills hadn't wholly deconsecrated his bittersweet memories.
More audience than actor, Oliver spends a lot of time simply watching Hal, the charming stranger who is his father (Christopher Plummer), and recalling his childhood. Back then he watched his mother (Mary Page Keller, playing the indie-neurotic version of a Tennessee Williams nutcase), whose earthy wit and sexual appetite got stymied by her marriage. Dad reveals she proposed to him, though she was aware of his homosexuality. An optimistic child of the '50s, she promised, "I'll fix it!" -- a loving yet fatal prescription for what was never sick or broken.
There's no resisting Plummer as a sweet septuagenarian who revels through his few out-and-proud years, then soldiers through terminal lung cancer. As Hal's homely, good-hearted lover, Goran Visnjic hovers just this side of grotesque. Everyone in this movie, including Oliver's new girlfriend, wrestles daddy issues -- and dad's bedmate, hooked on older men, romps about like an overgrown child, more second son than "spouse."
Not surprisingly, Oliver has gone emotionally dim, a wee bit shut down in the feelings department. He practically advertises indie-guy cred: "I don't believe relationships are going to work, so I make sure they don't." Costumed as Freud for a Halloween party, he's dorkishly funny couch-counseling a French hottie (Mélanie Laurent, stunning in "Inglourious Basterds") who maybe has laryngitis, or maybe she's just being indie-cute, or crazy-careful. Love is instant, cueing montages of lovemaking, strolls down romantic streets at midnight, roller-skating from rink to hotel. Anna's a living doll, but blighted by those obligatory Oedipal issues: A nomad, she's as rootless and commitment-phobic as dear, dim Oliver.
Did I mention dad's dog? After Hal dies, the grieving Jack Russell won't let Oliver out of his sight, so the endearing canine is witness to young master's free fall into love, communicating telepathically with Oliver! His gloomy observations and wisecracks, shared via subtitles, sound like outtakes from early Woody Allen or a Judd Apatow bromance.
Can't help but love that scruffy terrier, but the humans in "Beginners" never shape up into idiosyncratic, flesh-and-blood folks who get under our skin and engage our deepest emotions. They're two or three times removed from visceral experience -- theirs and ours. Here's dad lying on the floor with his lover, dozing in post-coital contentment, wafting a languid wave at his observing son. What a lovely picture, almost a magazine ad for gay home life, all signs of authentic sexuality airbrushed out. Here's Oliver suddenly going all weak and whiny with the object of his affection, who moved in with him two seconds ago, "I don't think I'm supposed to feel like this." And, just like that, she's out the door.
You can't actually imagine any of these "representations" of father, son, lovers slogging through a day or a lifetime. They remain attractive snapshots, their experiences edited into a hip-sentimental home movie. We like them and enjoy looking at them, sometimes to the point of falling for the illusion that these genial figures have something to do with real life.
"It takes a long time to become Real," opines Oliver's dad, quoting from "The Velveteen Rabbit." The lovely lesson continues: "That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept." By those lights, Mike Mills' soft-focus, bounce-back-barely-bruised "Beginners" must be front-runners in the race to Real.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.