‘Beginners’ too cute for its own good

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, June 10, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

A talking dog in a movie is not necessarily a warning sign, but I got wary when the dog in “Beginners” began speaking through on-screen subtitles. Placing one whimsical affectation on top of another could be a sign of a cuteness overload.

And, yes, “Beginners” might just be a too adorable for

its own good. With its tastefully designed portrait of a man working his way through grief, the film seems like a cousin to “A Single Man,” but it takes a lighter approach.

The man here is Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor. His father has died before the film begins, but flashbacks give us plenty of looks at the old man.

He’s Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came waaaay out of the closet after Oliver’s mother died. Hal was already a septuagenarian then, but managed to colorfully express his gay self in the few years he had before he died of cancer.

As Oliver sorts through both the loss of his father and the readjustment to Hal’s gay identity (just what did that make his parents’ marriage, then?), he also takes on a dog (see above) and an interesting new girlfriend.

The movie’s most delightful sequence involves the brief courtship of Oliver and Anna (Melanie Laurent), who meet at a party. She has laryngitis, so she can’t actually speak to Oliver, but writes notes to him as they spend a long night together.

It’s hard to say why there are any problems between these two lovely young people, except that writer-director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker”) needed something to create conflict as he charted his way through the middle of the movie.

That’s one of the reasons this movie’s charm wears thin after a while. It’s all so smart and handsome and well-ordered, I began wanting something rude to happen. But even that would come off as adorable.

McGregor keeps proving his talents as a leading man, and he carries this one easily. I’m still not sure how Oliver supports his lifestyle, given that his job as a cartoonist and graphic artist would appear to be a limited-income kind of thing, but I guess we’re not supposed to worry about that and just enjoy how fabulous everything looks.

Plummer is jovial as an elderly man unleashed (Oscar nomination alert, ya’ll), and French actress Melanie Laurent (she was the female lead in “Inglourious Basterds”) is exactly as irresistible as she’s meant to be. Goran Vinjic, as Hal’s flighty lover, is freewheeling to the point of weirdness.

I appreciated the movie’s attempt to deal with heavy subjects without sacrificing a certain lightness. I even appreciated the talking dog. But when lightness turned into glibness, the movie and the dog lost me.


Ewan McGregor plays a man grappling not only with his father’s death, but also with Dad’s coming out of the closet as a septuagenarian. Nice cast (Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent are winning here), but Mike Mills’ film feels a little too glib for its own good.

Rated: R for language, subject matter

Showing: Harvard Exit

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