June 4, 2011

Beginners (06/04/2011)

Lettergrade: A

Writer / director Mike Mills based much of Beginners on the period of his life after his mother had died and his father told him he was gay. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, Mills' fictionalized stand-in for the movie, and Christopher Plummer plays the dad. "I loved your mother very much," Plummer quietly says early in the flick, "but... I'm gay, and now I want to explore this side of my life."

He loves his father as much as he ever did, but the news, of course, is a major paradigm shift. Much of movie is almost like an inside-out view of Oliver working through his feelings... The scenes fluidly move forward and backward through time, circling around the years and months after his dad came out, leading up to his death from lung cancer, and then the months that followed wherein he meets a pretty actress played by Mélanie Laurent and begins a kind of sad, wounded romance. Betwixt, Oliver replays memories from his childhood again and again... which seem a little different with each pass now that he has a better understanding of why his parents' relationship seemed so dispassionately cordial, with mom looking sad much of the time and dad mostly absent altogether.

I liked the movie a lot, pretty much right from the first scene. An interesting thing is that the style is mostly earnest and somber, but with a constant dusting of playful imagination, almost like an extremely muted version of what you'd find in a movie like L.A. Story, Amélie, or 500 Days Of Summer. Oliver is a graphics artist (like Mills, before he got into filmmaking), and throughout the picture he narrates little vignettes that are almost like his journal / scrapbook of how the world was and how it has changed now.

It all works... I normally think that movies which try for this kind of mixture of whimsy and sentiment wind up a bit stiff and artificial-feeling, much like the last several Wes Anderson movies have. Beginners doesn't bend over backward to wring a lot of drama or sadness out of some of the key scenes, but Mills has confidence that those elements will shine through on their own without a lot of pushing, and they do.

Plummer as the dad is outstanding, and Laurent, in what is really her first American picture since Inglourious Basterds in 2009, pretty much steals every scene she's in. I tend to think of McGregor as a good actor, but weirdly one who disappears into the background a lot. There's a little bit of "blankness" to him, which means that he's the right kind of guy to appear in pictures like the Star Wars prequels (where he's intended to evoke a younger Alec Guiness) and in Tim Burton's Big Fish (where he's playing a younger Albert Finney), but he doesn't always make the most memorable lead on his own. Look him up on IMDB... With a lot of the pictures he's "starred" in, it's easy to forget that he was even in those films at all.

But you know, I think that kind of anonymity is right for what this film is too, kind of a filmic memoir of something that happened to the director which had a profound impact on him. We're in a weird age where movies like this rarely get made (or seen) unless a cast member of Twilight agrees to be in them, like in 2009's excellent Adventureland, or by some chance it gets a lot of Awards season attention the following spring, which is typically good for DVD and Blu Ray sales, but not so much for encouraging media companies to finance similar projects in the future. Beginners is an excellent example of this sort of thing done well all around, and I hope that between the Super 8s and Transformers 3s of this summer, a decent amount of people actually get around to seeing it.

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