Begin Again (A-)
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden
Written and directed by John Carney
Like Mark Ruffalo’s character in the film, Begin Again is filled with ragged determination and scruffy charm, despite its flaws. When I left the theater I had a smile on my face, my biggest movie-related grin since seeing Waitress in 2007.
Ruffalo — inching ever closer to looking like Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips — plays Dan, an indie record label honcho in the midst of his latest emotional breakdown when he hears Gretta (Keira Knightley) play at an open-mike night. Though her mellow, mournful tune doesn’t impress the audience, Dan’s great ears can hear what this gem would sound like with a full band.
He wants to produce her album and sign her, even though he hasn’t had much success in recent years. Gretta’s also reluctant since she too is a wounded bird. Her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), also a musician, has left her behind as his star has ascended. Yes, these two beat-up souls will make beautiful music together. Luckily, director John Carney doesn’t explicitly make this a romantic comedy.
Or at least it’s not a romance between two people. Begin Again is more about their relationship with music and New York City. While that could have easily gotten cliché, the movie so effortlessly depicts those relationships. It’s carefree, the kind of movie that happens outside the confines of a studio dictating an ending.
While Begin Again has charm to spare, its biggest asset is its music, most of which was written by Gregg Alexander, a prolific pop songwriter still best known for his one hit (New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give”). His songs are relentlessly catchy, even if they don’t have the depth and nuance of Once, Carney’s last musical. Seeing the rag-tag band record these songs throughout New York City is simply a delight.
Though the film half-bakes Dan’s attempts to reconcile with his wife and daughter, and gives Catherine Keener and Mos Def practically nothing to do except be wet blankets, there’s just an abundance of things to love about Begin Again. From the songs to the chemistry to the sights, it’s a cinematic anti-depressant.