There has not been a trailer in recent memory as misleading as the one for Beginners. The advertisement paints the film as this whimsical, melancholy, and comedic affair, a kind of Garden State meets On Golden Pond. In the first twenty minutes, though, Beginners quickly demolishes any positive expectations, sends the story down a disjointed course and never improves.
The actors, the directing, the music, or even the pet dog. None of these are the crux of the problem. The script by writer-director Mike Mills is Beginners’ downfall. The narrative is nonlinear, as seems to be the popular storytelling route these days, bouncing from Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) life after his father, Hal’s (Christopher Plummer) passing as he tries to move on, to Oliver’s childhood and his relationship with his oddball, but caring mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller) to the recent past prior to his father’s death, and their relationship in the wake of Hal’s coming out and his announcement he has terminal cancer. In the midst of his coping, Oliver meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent).
All scenes involving Oliver’s mother and father take place in flashbacks and thus, for the majority of the proceedings we are stuck with Oliver and Anna, two wandering thirty somethings, he a young, working artist, frequently shown putting pen to paper and she, a supposedly working actress, who is never shown actually working, even though her job is referenced repeatedly. Anna likes to walk or maybe run around the city and the hotel. She enjoys wandering about the local bookstore with Oliver and staring out the window at the sad, lost fellow humans across the way, the ones occupying the rooms facing the hotel she stays in and sometimes, when the weather is cozy enough she quite enjoys roller-skating with her talented, new boyfriend and her favorite moping partner: Oliver. All of this is terribly exhausting and leaves very little time for productive work like acting or anything else that would help pay for her hotel bills or the paint job her car desperately requires. No, sleep is what this tired lady needs and rightfully deserves. She must become one with her lovable pillow and of course, Oliver, her always understanding lover, will be right by her side when she says goodnight.
(end of rambling)
When Oliver first meets this Anna at a costume party, she cannot speak due to laryngitis. It is a unique meeting of two leads, but Anna’s impairment quickly becomes cutesy and downright dumb eventually, planting a seed of dislike for the character that only grows as the story moves forward, but the word “story” here is used loosely. The relationship that develops after the party has all the emotional depth of a tween pop song. There is nothing to absorb here. Oliver has clearly not recovered from the deaths of his parents, yet he lets his time get swallowed up by such an indolent person who evidently has her own set of difficulties, someone who only amplifies his stagnancy instead of helping to diminish it and he the same for her. There seems to be no obvious reason for these two to be together except to contribute to each other’s specific miseries. As a couple, they are uninteresting and consequently, they bore us fast. Keller and Plummer, as Oliver’s mother and father, are left to give Beginners what little life it has. Their characters are unique and soaked with particularities, and though the actors never share a scene together, we never once doubt they were married for over forty years.
Plummer’s and Keller’s performances aside, the music is the film’s only other clear strength. It injects some semblance of happiness or spiritedness into the these characters’ world, only it sometimes becomes more entertaining than the scene its playing over, softening the blow of the movie’s duller moments. The music choices, most of which are older songs, are solid, with a sweet irony about them, yet often act as band-aids trying to patch together a shoddy narrative and make an extremely depressing film more uplifting.
Beginners has its share of funny moments and the commonalities between Oliver’s mother and Anna are interesting, but lead nowhere. Every actor here has plenty of talent, only not enough to morph a half-cooked screenplay into a satisfying movie, as they are supplied with severely underwritten central characters. At its core, Beginners is a film with many strong character scenes trapped inside a laborious narrative. These sequences concern Oliver’s childhood interactions with his eccentric mother and grown-up Oliver’s conversations and experiences with his ailing father. It is Oliver and Anna’s irritating relationship antics that poison anything enjoyable about the rest of the film.
These characters continually sulk, they meander, they roller skate and Anna cries repeatedly for no discernible or understandable reason. It might be her problematic relationship with her father or her inability to settle in one place with one person, or both. By the forty-five minute mark, we do not know and we do not care. Beginners is largely a film about identity, what makes us who we are and how our emotions play into that, only the film itself never creates its own identity, jumbling its talented performers’ characters around, letting the bad eclispe the good. Instead, Beginners focuses on a directionless, pretentious and grating love story, leaving us with little reason to care about the good scenes in between.