Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Begin Again, starring Mark Ruffalo and Kiera Knightley, written and directed by John Carney

First, a confession: I didn’t know that Kiera Knightley could sing. She can. And, I didn’t know that Adam Levine could act. He can. 
Begin Again starts with a seemingly random evening in an open-mike night at any Village dive. A British girl sings a pretty ballad, and a drunk gets transfixed by the song. Then the magic starts to happen. We jump back to the start of the drunk‘s day. He’s the co-founder of an independent music label, having a rough time. By the time he ends up at the dive, he’s been fired, punched, embarrassed in front of his 14-year-old daughter, and reminded that he can talk to God. “But what if God doesn’t answer?” He is close to ending his life. That guy is played by Mark Ruffalo. He hears her song and magic happens again: He sees what that pretty ballad could be with the right production behind it.
Then we jump back to the circumstances that brought the Brit to the dive. She’s the girlfriend and co-writer of a musician who has just broken through into the big time – record deal, fawning assistants from the label, US tour in the works, making an album. She gets deftly moved into the background as fame swallows up the singer. He has an affair, she leaves, and ends up at the dump belonging to a friend, where magic happens. He suggests she get out of the place and go hear him sing at this dive. There, he talks her into singing one of the songs she’s written, “For anyone who’s ever been alone in New York.” You will remember that song. That girl is Kiera Knightly. The unfaithful boyfriend is Adam Levine. I found that not only could he act, but he did such a good job that I really don’t like him – based on the character he portrayed! 
The story is exquisitely crafted – honest, with full characters in every role. I wanted to know more about each individual who spoke – there were no incidental interactions. There were wonderful moments of homage to great films, though. One of my favorites followed Kiera asking a seemingly innocent question of Mark, which caused him to freeze up and walk away. He steps outside, then stops as if to turn back and explain, then he turns forward and walks away. This beautiful moment captures and extends the moment in Love, Actually where Kiera Knightly realizes that her new husband’s friend doesn’t hate her, but actually is deeply in love with her. He nearly runs out of his apartment, then stops, turns, and turns away: Choreographically identical, emotionally powerful and honest – and artful. 
In a few words the rapper Troublegum (played by CeeLo Green) gives us the theme of the movie: “When a man like that falls on hard times, people forget who he is. They don’t give him the respect he deserves.”   
The title recalls Robert Preston and Mary Tyler Moore’s Finnegan, Begin Again, with echoes the lines from Finnegan’s Wake: “Us, then. Finn, again! Take.” The movie is strong enough to carry both references.  
The broader theme of the movie is Renewal. Mark’s character, with the help and support of his friends old and new, picks up the pieces and begins again, even stronger than he was before. Events transform him. His healing resurrects his family, his business, his friends, and the city of New York.  It is one of the best movies I‘ve ever seen.