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Charming ‘Begin Again’ doesn’t limit itself to romantic expressions of love

By Dan Willis / Staff Writer

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“Begin Again”

Directed by: John Carney

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine

Grade: B

The poster for John Carney’s “Begin Again,” the spiritual sequel to his 2006 musical drama “Once,” shows a demure but attentive Keira Knightley clutching a cup of coffee and smiling at a charmingly disheveled Mark Ruffalo, who has apparently just poured the contents of a hip flask into his. Attend a showing, and you’ll begin to see the aptness of this image. 

Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, a divorced, alcoholic record executive who’s beginning to see that smooth talk can only get him so far. Knightley plays Gretta, a shy singer-songwriter whose naiveté is crumbling around her. The first half of the movie hits every down-on-his-luck dad and chance-encounter-romance cliché possible, so you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the rest of the movie would document their perverse and redemptive, if one-sided, relationship. But you’d be wrong. 

“Begin Again” is fueled by the many different expressions of love — love through forgiveness, for friends and family, for the simple act of making music. It’s a gentle yet surprising movie made all the better for the way it deftly evades the suggestion of romance, especially during its back half.

The film begins with Dan, who after the record label he co-founded fires him, goes on a bender that spits him out at an open mic night in the East Village. Here, Gretta reluctantly debuts “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” the movie’s first original song. Then, through flashbacks, we learn both Dan and Gretta’s backstories, which lead to them arriving at the open mic night three separate times. 

The narrative is unevenly braided — the plots and subplots are difficult to distinguish, and the implicit tension between Dan and Gretta hangs heavily over everything. We learn that Gretta is dealing with a breakup from her songwriting partner and boyfriend Dave Kohl, played earnestly but ineptly by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, whose bad acting either draws attention to the faults of the writing or is evidence that he insisted on writing all his own lines. But Gretta’s healing process is dwarfed by Dan’s. 

In fact, Dan is the only truly dynamic character in “Begin Again.” Only halfway through the movie is it finally made explicit that this movie is primarily about him, and his relationship with Gretta is purely professional. After this point, the only true fault of the movie is that, as opposed to the “singers who can kinda act” from “Once,” the leads here — Ruffalo and Knightley — are “actors who can kinda sing.” On the other hand, the supporting actors — CeeLo Green, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and Levine — are woefully miscast in roles that rely a little too heavily on their acting chops.

The movie finally finds its groove once Dan and Gretta hatch their plan to record an entire album, song-by-song, in various eccentric and sentimental locations around New York City because every plot development following this is in service to Dan. The album gives him an opportunity to reconnect with his daughter over music, bring his family back together, put him in good favor with his record label and put another successful record under his belt. Even Gretta’s attempts to come to terms with her breakup are spurred on by the newfound confidence that Dan gives her, as if his efforts needed more validation. 

The movie lays it on a little thick, and it’s certainly a lot glossier than the naturalistic “Once,” but “Begin Again” ends with its heart in the right place — with the music.

 

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Charming ‘Begin Again’ doesn’t limit itself to romantic expressions of love