Begin Again” is an insistent puppy of a movie, just about willing you to like it. And while it certainly has appeal — you’d have to be a troll to resist it completely — you may end up wanting to enjoy it more than its qualities will allow.
Starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, “Begin Again” is the latest film by John Carney, responsible for the landmark “Once,” and while comparisons are invariably unfair, the two films have so much in common that the question of whether off-the-cuff lightning can strike twice is inevitable. The answer, unfortunately, is no.
For while both films are unapologetic fairy tales centering on the power of music to transform relationships, not to mention entire lives, “Begin Again” demonstrates that revisiting thematically similar material with bigger stars and a higher gloss runs the risk of losing the qualities that made the idea so effective in the first place.
Knightley and Ruffalo are certainly much more accomplished actors than “Once’s” Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, but they are coasting on their personas here more than acting, and their star quality makes the numerous calculated contrivances of “Begin Again’s” story more obvious and harder to swallow than was the case with “Once’s” relative unknowns.
Anyone who enjoyed “Once” will be able to appreciate the talent director Carney has for making music cinematic and cinema musical. It’s not only the appealing way Carney and cinematographer Yaron Orbach have filmed Knightley and company singing the film’s numerous songs (mostly by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals). It’s that the film’s most effective straight dramatic scenes are those that most directly connect to the music on the screen.
Though its basic “music will save you” premise is simple enough, “Begin Again” opening sections are a bit convoluted. It all starts with an open mike night at a scruffy Lower Manhattan bar when a disgruntled Gretta (Knightley) is goaded into performing a new song on guitar by old pal Steve (Tony winner James Corden).
Gretta is not at her best, the song is in equally bad shape, the crowd is indifferent, but one seriously inebriated man, Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo), is transfixed, at which point we see an extended flashback to how Dan has spent the last 12 hours.
Though he still drives a Jaguar that’s a remnant of palmier days, Dan is a wreck. Once a gifted record producer, he hasn’t signed anyone of value in years and has just been fired from the company he founded by Saul (Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def).
Once happily married, he lives apart from wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and has a sketchy relationship with daughter Violet (“True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld), a troubled teen who dresses like being a hooker was going out of style.
Yet Dan still has great ears, and one of “Begin Again’s” better scenes allows us to hear the orchestrations he’s imagining for Gretta’s tepid song while we see the other instruments in the bar happily playing themselves.
Because, not to put too fine a point on it, Dan has been a jerk up to this point in the film, it’s not surprising that Gretta, a purist who cares not a whit for commercial success, blows off his inebriated attempts to convince her to work with him on a record.
But, as yet another extended flashback shows us, Gretta is also, yes, nursing a broken heart. She came to New York with fellow musician Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and “The Voice”) but he gets famous fast, she goes from his creative partner to the girl who gets coffee, and soon she’s moved out and sleeping on old pal Steve’s convenient sofa.
It’s no surprise that Gretta comes around and agrees to work with Dan (there’d be no movie if she didn’t) but the amount of unconvincing exposition we’re expected to swallow is disheartening in a way it never was in “Once.”
For one thing, many of “Begin Again’s” plot points, like Gretta instantly becoming fast friends with Violet, just about scream unlikely, a situation that the unimpressive nature of the acting does not help.
Even more dubious is the idea Dan hatches to record Gretta’s album live amid the noise and the chaos of Manhattan’s streets. It sounds so much like the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” strategy of 1939’s “Babes in Arms” you almost can’t believe this hoary stratagem has been dragged out of its quiet retirement yet one more time.
Yet, just when you are ready to completely write off “Begin Again,” the music starts to play, the camera takes it all in and makes us a part of it, and the film’s unpersuasive emotions don’t seem to matter as much. Even if Dan and Gretta charm each other more than they charm us, the music they make is harder to resist than they are.
MPAA rating: R, for language
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: In limited release