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Our review of Beginners, published November 30th, 2011, is also available.
An uplifting comedy about how funny and transformative life can be.
Hal: "Let's say that since you were little, you always dreamed of
getting a lion. And you wait, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait but the
lion never comes. And along comes a giraffe. You can be alone, or you can be
with the giraffe."
Facts of the Case
Even when he's at a party cracking jokes while dressed as Sigmund Freud, it's easy to see that Oliver (Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting) is sad. He is consumed by memories of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music), who passed away only a couple of months ago. Oliver's parents were married for many years, but after his mother (Mary Paige Keller, Commander in Chief) passed away, his father announced that he was gay. Oliver spends a great deal of time thinking about his strange relationship with his mother during his formative years, and also about his strange relationship with his father in recent years. Making an attempt to pull him back into the present is the lovely Anna (Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds), who just might be the elusive perfect girl Oliver has always been looking for. Will their relationship succeed, or will it be crushed by Oliver's overbearing sadness and self-loathing?
At various points throughout Beginners, Oliver provides us with a brief slideshow designed to take us back to a specific time: "This is 1955. This is my mother. This is nature. This is what a smile looked like. This is the president." It sounds like typically cutesy indie-flick material—and technically, it is—but there's something curiously affecting about the presentation, from the weary cracks in McGregor's voice to the way in which the individually mundane images add up to something larger. The film itself plays in similar fashion; an unexpectedly moving catalogue of wounded emotions that initially seems overly precious but eventually digs its way into your heart: "This is Oliver attempting to understand his mother. This is Oliver talking to his dog because no one else understands him. This is Oliver falling in love. This is Oliver discovering that he didn't really know his father until it was too late."
Beginners has a charm akin to an eager-to-please puppy dog with a missing leg; its unmissable pain makes its sweetness all the more touching. The film is an immensely personal one for writer/director Mike Mills, whose own father came out of the closet shortly after his mother's passing. Perhaps it's no surprise that the material dealing with this in Beginners is often the strongest stuff the film has to offer. Plummer has rarely been better than he is in this role; his joyful reaction to finally being permitted to live life the way he wants to is infectious. In no time at all, Hal has joined all sorts of gay rights groups, found a sweet young boyfriend (Goran Visnjic, Elektra) and become an entirely new man. When he learns that he has terminal cancer, he urges Oliver, "not to rush out and tell everyone." His life has entered thrilling territory; he's not about to let his diagnosis ruin an opportunity to enjoy every day he has left.
What's remarkable is that Beginners never feels contrived or mawkish (Hal's storyline occasionally provides memories of the immensely contrived and mawkish The Bucket List). There's a fundamental honesty even in the most fantastical sequences. Consider the scenes in which Oliver engages in conversation with his dog (an adorable Jack Russell Terrier). Oliver will say something, and then subtitles will offer what he imagines the dog is replying. It could have been eyeroll-inducing, but what dog owner hasn't looked into the eyes of their friend on a lonely night and attempted to discern what their pal was attempting to say with that silent-but-expressive look? This is a film which knows precisely what it feels like to be in the unrelenting grip of melancholy.
There's a lot of humor throughout the film, but it's less about making us laugh (though we do) and more about observing the way the characters use humor to cope with different situations. Oliver and Anna's first few dates are non-stop charm sessions, loaded with well-observed portions of quiet, dry playfulness. Eventually, the film reaches the inevitable moment when serious things must be discussed in a serious fashion, and is masterfully subtle in the way it examines how uncomfortable the characters are when confronted with these moments.
Beginners boasts a strong screenplay, but fortunately it has actors capable of bringing its many unwritten nuances to life. Ewan McGregor does his best work in years as Oliver; yet another demonstration that the actor fares noticeably better when he sets big-budget Hollywood fare aside and digs into something more intimate. At times he seems like the world's most masterfully sensitive actor, and Beginners is one of those times. Laurent's role is less substantial (largely because we're seeing her entirely from Oliver's perspective), but she does splendid work and generates considerable chemistry with McGregor. Her introduction is particularly fun, as she refuses to speak due to laryngitis and communicates with Oliver using only a notepad and her sparkling eyes. Plummer has the juiciest role, and generates some of the film's most delightful moments when he confides supposedly little-known information about the gay community to his son ("Dad, I know the rainbow is a symbol of gay pride," Oliver insists). In the past few years, Plummer has been handed some excellent roles (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Last Station) and has reminded us of his considerable gifts. He is in his eighties, but he has never seemed more alive.
Beginners (Blu-ray) offers a crisp 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The film is handsomely crafted despite its small budget, and its strong cinematography and achingly muted color palette are accentuated quite nicely by this disc. Detail is exceptional throughout; you can see every whisker on McGregor's face and every strand of Plummer's snowy hair. Blacks are deep throughout and shadow delineation is impressive. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also solid, though this is a very gentle track which primarily spotlights dialogue. The music is of the soft, soothing, piano-driven variety and it's well-mixed if unspectacular. Supplements include a commentary with Mills, a featurette on the making of the film and a fluffier EPK-style promo. You also get Pocket Blu and BD-Live.
It might initially be tempting to glance at Beginners and dismiss it as yet another gratingly whimsical indie comedy/drama, but the emotions at the core of the film are never less than authentic. This is a tender, superbly-acted film which is certainly worth your time.
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