' ' Cinema Romantico: Beginners

Monday, December 19, 2011


It's an ancient refrain, but an accurate one. Life goes by pretty fast. Yes. Yes, it does. And if we can all agree that life goes by pretty fast then we can all agree that it seems strange how so often it take us proverbial eons to sit up and assume charge of our lives and live them the way we want them to be lived. Take, for instance, Hal (Christopher Plummer). Guy's 75 years old. He's been married for 44 years. His wife passes away. Then he tells his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) he is and has always been, in fact, gay. And then it's like that moment in Baz Luhrmann's "Australia" after the rains arrive and everything comes into full and vibrant focus. He's, well, ALIVE. At 75! After 44 years of a marriage he didn't necessarily want to be in! (Head in hands.)

Or, for another example, take Oliver. He's 38. He's a graphic designer in L.A. This band wants him to sketch a likeness of each member for their album cover but instead he tries to sell them on an ambitious album insert he calls "A History Of Sadness." A History Of Sadness? Oh boy. He lives alone. He's been in a few relationships but they never last because he simply expects something bad to happen and either ensures that it does or bolts before it occurs.

Or consider Anna (Melanie Laurent). She's a French actress. She seems to have an apartment in every port. Not so that she can retire to them with potential suitors but so that she can run away to one as far away from the current one as possible whenever things start to get hot & heavy with a potential suitor. No, not even hot & heavy, when they start to get mildly warm and a few miles outside the cusp of substantial.

As "Beginners", just released to DVD, opens, Hal has passed away from cancer. But despite this development the film, written and directed by Mike Mills, based on his own real life experience with his father, contains a decidedly playful structure, bouncing around and back and forth and here and there between past and present and colored in with laconic but charming voiceover from McGregor that suggests how monumental details coalesce with the seemingly insignificant details to create an existence. And we see that Hal is not simply meeting this (going-to-be) fatal health issue with quiet dignity but with loud and boisterous dignity. He throws parties, has drinks, shoots off fireworks, invites his not-so-monogamous boyfriend to move in. Not unlike this year's "50/50" the film chooses to ignore the more realistic and impossibly harsh circumstances of cancer but does so, gracefully, to hold high the hope that when one faces something so vicious, one does not have to give up believing in the bright side of life. And perhaps it is his father's death that causes Oliver to reach out to Anna whom he meets at a party in such a way that the whole thing could easily have collapsed from the weight of whimsy, but instead comes across not like real life nor like a fairy-tale but some sort of perfect exotic mixture of the two.

That's the whole film, really. Plummer may be playing a gay man but he (and the writing) resist the stereotype. There is a disease but the screenplay never starts slumming for audience sympathy. The courtship of Oliver and Anna may be quite quirky but both actors do priceless work in the way they effortlessly convey the unease lurking just out of sight the closer they get and the more in love they fall. Why the film even has a cute little dog, for God's sake, who Oliver communicates with in a fashion that brings to mind a more indie Ron Burgundy & Baxter, but Mills, again and again, never conforms to the typical truisms of these sorts of screen stories. He maintains a believably enchanting tone that re-highlights another most ancient maxim. There is a moment when Oliver is very young and his mother - portrayed distinctly as a (by necessity) closet Jew - says to him, "In my new life I'm going to marry a Jew. They're the most hot blooded." In your new life, sister? What about this life?

As "Beginners" will eventually show, it's never too late to begin your life. It's not only an impressive accomplishment, it's a gentle triumph. It's one of the very best films of 2011.


Castor said...

I really enjoyed Beginners now that I think back about it. It's really a movie about living life to the fullest and I love the emotions and moods it was able to convey. Excellent review Nick, it's an enchanting time indeed.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, my friend. Glad to hear you liked it too. Unless something unexpectedly fantastic happens in the next few weeks I will like this one completely cemented my Top 5 for the year (the back half of the 10 is another matter).

Andrew K. said...

This.Is. Perfect.

I'm so horrible at tying film reviews to "real life" issues, but you raise some solid points. What about this life indeed. The single overt flaw I can find is that Keller is so good as his mother I wish the film would touch on her just a little more. So much sadness, and yet I'm smiling all the way through.

Nick Prigge said...

Why, thank you! See, it's funny, I thought in your review of this film you did a great job of explaining precisely why from a filmmaking/screenwriting standpoint this film was so brilliant.

It's like, whenever I see a movie I love this much I suddenly have a hard time expressing the mechanics of the production because I find myself so overwhelmed emotionally. Or something.

Sam Fragoso said...

So glad you enjoyed this. My favorite film of the year.

Nick Prigge said...

You don't say? Favorite of the year? Nice choice. Very, very nice choice.