Begin Again

It’s hard to repeat or even recreate the innocent charm of a film as terrific as Once, that musical romance between an Irish busker and an immigrant flower-seller that unfolded almost entirely on the streets of Dublin. Doesn’t stop writer-director John Carney from trying nonetheless. For his new film, Begin Again, the filmmaker rips off the premise of his own 2006 indie – a pair of unlikely partners drawn together by the promise of making music – and surprisingly, the result isn’t a complete mess.
 
Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a washed-up record producer whose glory days are behind him. He’s struggling to mend his troubled relationship with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), and he’s just been fired from the music company he helped start. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is the dutiful girlfriend and songwriting partner of a caddish pop star (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) who dumps her the moment he becomes famous. When Dan spots Gretta strumming a sweet, unpretentious tune at a local dive in New York, his own passion for music is reignited. He persuades her to record an album that he will personally produce, and suggests that they do it not in a studio but on the streets of the Big Apple.
 
The film’s fairytale quality works like a double-edged sword, at once giving us charming New York montages featuring Ruffalo and Knightley, but also suffocating from under the weight of its own improbable optimism. How can one be fully invested in these protagonists when so little is at stake? Dan’s alcoholism, and his fractured personal relationships are resolved without any of the messiness you’d typically expect, and Gretta never stops reminding us that she can just go back to England and start afresh if her music career fails to take off.
 
Yet, Ruffalo and Knightley bring a disarming honesty to their performances, their characters’ contrasting personalities nicely bound by a shared love of music. In one of the film’s best scenes, the pair walks around New York at night, listening to tracks from each other’s playlists, breaking into impromptu dance moves when inspired. There’s an exciting fly-on-the-wall quality to the recording scenes filmed across the city…in streets and on rooftops, in parks and in the New York subway.
 
Not a lot of it feels unpredictable or particularly original, although Carney cleverly keeps us guessing where all this is leading. The songs, performed by Knightley herself, are pleasant enough, but there’s nothing nearly as remarkable as Falling Slowly from Once, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song that year.
 
Begin Again is like a light frothy soufflé – enjoyable while it lasts but not memorable enough to seek out for repeats. I’m going with three out of five.

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