I knew absolutely nothing about Beginners except that it had Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer in it and that Plummer won an Oscar for it. I put it in my Netflix queue because after Plummer won I heard someone say, “I hope this makes more people see Beginners.”
I think at this point, there needs to be a new genre called ‘Dead Parent Rom/Com’. With Garden State it was a dead mom. With Elizabethtown it was a dead dad. With Beginners it’s a dead gay dad. All of them seem to follow a fairly familiar pattern. Parent dies, adult son deals with the aftermath, meets beautiful woman, falls in love, has problems, but works it out amidst the backdrop of quirky friends and occasionally odd local customs. It should be noted that while this sounds like a formula, my understanding is that each of the movies mentioned above were labors of love for the filmmakers involved and that I don’t think any of them were ripping each other off. It should also be noted that none of this makes them bad movies.
Beginners starts after Oliver’s father has died. It then jumps back and forth through time showing the months leading up to his father’s death and occasionally flashing back to his childhood. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver with a quiet sadness that works for his character. Early on the in the film there is very little dialog and yet he manages to convey exactly how he’s feeling. This is the sort of thing good actors don’t get enough credit for. We often remember great lines but great silences are just as important.
Christopher Plummer’s Oscar winning performance as Oliver’s father, Hal is incredibly authentic. Hal stayed married for 44 years until his wife died. The entire time he knew he was gay. The curiosity with which he discovers things is fun. There’s a scene where he comes back from a gay nightclub and calls his son in the middle of the night to ask what they call the sort of music they play in places like that. Oliver says, “House music?” and Hal diligently writes it down. It’s a small scene that implies a lot and that’s really all you want in a flashback.
Mélanie Laurent plays Oliver’s new love interest, Anna. She and Oliver soon discover that they both have a history of leaving relationships. They also notice that they like each other far more than they’d each prefer. For whatever reason, I couldn’t really get into her character. I’m not sure if this was the fault of the writing or the acting, but I just found her to be there because Oliver needed a girlfriend. It’s the one part of the movie that just didn’t quite gel for me.
The most charming thing about Beginners is writer/director Mike Mills’ playful directing style. His sudden stock photo montages even when regarding things like cancer work well to lighten the mood along with Arthur the dog’s subtitles.
As Dead Parent Rom/Coms go, Beginners is a good one. I like it just fine. Though I must admit I like Elizabethtown better.
– Jack Cameron