'Beginners' review: A confection offering thoughtful, dizzying freedom to feel unsure of yourself

Beginners (movie)Ewan McGregorMelanie LaurentChristopher Plummer

*** (out of four)

"Beginners" constantly jumps back and forth between the present and different moments in the past. If it were linear, however, the movie would be: Oliver (Ewan McGregor) grows up, his mom dies, his dad (Christopher Plummer) comes out and dies of cancer four years later, after which Oliver starts a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent). Got it?

The buzz: That plot summary's not a spoiler, just a jumping off point for writer-director Mike Mills to ruminate on concepts and items that have existed forever, including love, animals, beauty, homosexuality and fireworks. McGregor doesn't always exude great screen presence, but here there’s a lot more to him than usual.

The verdict: What a delicately and charmingly off-center movie. "Beginners" stays at a distance for some of what happens between Oliver and Anna, in terms of both their connection and their friction. Yet Mills addresses big ideas (including miscommunication and the various means of sabotaging a relationship) without coming off as precious or pretentious. How can we focus solely on ourselves, Mills wonders, when there is so much historical context preceding us? In other words, no one knows what they're doing, but someone's always done it and been through it before.

Did you know? Oliver occasionally perceives thoughts from his dad's Jack Russell terrier, who thinks things like, "I hope this feeling lasts." Could a conversation with your dog ever be as good as the one you have with him in your mind?

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Beginners (movie)Ewan McGregorMelanie LaurentChristopher Plummer
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