By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
The 2006 film “Once,” which won an Oscar for best song, was something of a mystery. That little Irish picture featured unfamiliar actors, an obscure director and an unusual approach to the movie musical. Was it just a one-off?
Filmmaker John Carney has worked since then, without making much of a splash. His new one, “Begin Again,” suggests that “Once” was not a fluke.
This is another music film, deep in its bones. It’s got a dangerously recognizable storyline, but the treatment is heartfelt and its actors engaging. Plus, the music’s pretty good.
The setting this time is New York, where a burnout music executive named Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is running out of chances. He’s blown through his money, the label he founded doesn’t want him around anymore, and his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) are increasingly embarrassed by his decline.
By accident, he hears a songwriter, Greta (Keira Knightley), as she reluctantly sings at an open-mike night. He imagines the finished, fully-produced song in his head (so do we), and he sets about cutting an album with this skeptical young talent.
For her part, Greta’s newly dumped by a longtime boyfriend (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine), a guy whose emotional stability fluctuates as often as his facial hair. He’s abruptly rocketed to stardom, a process that contributed to the breakup.
Like “Once,” “Begin Again” is arranged around music its composition, its performance, its meaning. Carney has a feel for how music can serve as human communication, and Dan’s observations about how a song can change the most mundane scene into something enchanted will ring true for anybody who cherishes music.
I liked the way that the film doesn’t force a romance between the two leads, who are 20 years apart in age. That would shift the balance in the wrong direction. And yet it does acknowledge the way attraction can play a role in people becoming friends.
Knightley doesn’t have a strong voice, but she’s credible enough as a waifish songbird. Ruffalo has a good time with an easily clichéd role, and together they develop something rather nice. Adam Levine, himself no stranger to pop-music stardom, is entirely believable in his role — and even sneakily funny at times.
It might not add up to classic status, but “Begin Again” does generate a glow. It’s a valentine to music, and as such hits its target in a really catchy way.
“Begin Again” (three stars)
What might have been a standard music-biz story becomes something rather nice, as “Once” director John Carney creates a pleasant glow around some recognizable characters. A burnout producer (Mark Ruffalo) records a new songwriter (Keira Knightley) as she is dumped by a rising star (Adam Levine).
Rating: R, for language
Opens: Wednesday at Guild 45th and Pacific Place.