For director Mike Mills, this much is autobiographically true: At the not-so-tender age of 75, after a long marriage of nearly half a century, Mills's widowed father burst out of the closet to aggressively, and happily, explore his "gay side."
No doubt, such a late metamorphosis is intriguing, but note the plural in the title. That's not the only new beginning in Beginners. There's at least a couple others, all of them stitched together in a fictionalized embroidery that's always neat but sometimes laboured - its sensibilities more cute than acute. Apparently, too many fresh starts can make for a stale movie.
The picture opens with death and then circles back to life. A mere four years after his coming-out pronouncement, after embracing colourful scarves and chiselled abs and his young male lover and a wide circle of gay friends, Hal (Christopher Plummer) succumbed to cancer. His son Oliver is left to sift through the memories and tend to his inheritances, including the adorable little dog that, in a worrisome sign of the cuteness to come, occasionally speaks in subtitled asides.
Straight but unmarried, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a thirtysomething commitment-phobe. In his work as a graphic artist, the guy displays a wry sense of humour but, everywhere else, his default setting is a quiet seriousness - so serious that, at a costume party, Sigmund Freud is his dress-up of choice. There he meets Anna the beguiling French actress (portrayed by the beguiling French actress Mélanie Laurent) who, struck by laryngitis, cannot speak. Nevertheless, amid the competing silences, they literally drop their masks and sparks fly.
From that stage, Mills alternates quite smoothly between the present and various points in the past, intent at each juncture on investigating a different domestic dynamic: the adult Oliver's relationship with his newly gay father, the boy Oliver's relationship with his understandably frustrated mother, the emerging relationship with Anna, and Anna's relationship with her own depressed daddy. Yep, it's an embarrassment of emotional riches - some pure and crisp, others cloying. This is a film that delights one moment and, the next, gets bogged down in its morass of feelings.
Among the delights is Plummer's performance. He plays the liberated Hal with an understated matter-of-factness - an old yet still vital man finally giving himself permission to let loose hitherto repressed passions. The better-late-than-never message is obvious, but Plummer delivers it with nonchalant ease. Much less convincing is his coterie of male friends, who come off collectively as a gay-pride cliché - ever smiling and caring and sexy and so very supportive.
We're similarly compelled and annoyed by the budding romance in the present. Anna is meant to be alluring and, with her sensual Gallic charms, Laurent fits the bill perfectly - even the most committed commitment-phobe would find her irresistible. But this is precisely where Oliver's sad-sack mien wears awfully thin. Sporting a flat American accent for the occasion, McGregor is locked into a role that, as written by the alter-ego Mills, rings a bit false.
On one hand, he's decent and loving, sympathetic at every turn to his father's transformed self. On the other, he's dour and withdrawn, still plagued by his upbringing in a troubled household.
Yet his is no warring personality. Instead, the split halves are presented as entirely separate entities that peacefully co-exist. He behaves too well, he's just too damned good. There's scant internal drama and, thus, little reason for us to care whether his fling with Anna lasts or not - because Oliver seems insubstantial, so do the consequences.
Ultimately, the result is identical to Mills's debut effort in Thumbsucker. Once again, clever insight vies with misty-eyed sentimentality, honesty with artifice, real humour with bogus gravity, the genuinely affecting with the merely quirky. But Thumbsucker was at least a promising start; Beginners is just a frustrating continuation.
- Directed and written by Mike Mills
- Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent
- Classification: 14A