Mike Mills' semi-autobiographical romance Beginners is a carefully crafted scrapbook dedicated to three people: Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a lost and wounded animator; Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a cosmopolitan actress intrigued by Oliver's good looks and emotional pain; and Hal (Christopher Plummer), Oliver's recently deceased father who, at age 75, had announced his homosexuality to his son shortly after his wife's death.
With its frustrated-artist protagonist, its elusive Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and its clever time-jumbling gambits, Mills' film suggests a more heartfelt and humane version of the unbearable 2009 romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer.
Oliver and Anna's first meeting is a classic example of that film's wrongheaded artsy eccentricity; they discover each other at a costume party where he's dressed as Freud and she, impaired by laryngitis, communicates by writing and drawing on a notepad. How cute. How clever. How cloying.
Once Anna regains her voice, their budding romance assumes the contours of an extended therapy session. These two attractive wet blankets rub against each other plenty, but even their love scenes fail to generate any heat. (On the other hand, perhaps really attractive people don't need much chemistry to fall in love — they forge their emotional bonds through mutual physical attraction and long looks into each other's eyes.)
While this shoegazer romance shuffles around, Mills' unusual structural tactics temporarily tilt his story in different directions. Voiceover-heavy still-photo montage sequences, Jack Russell terriers that think in subtitles, and a certain French New Wave breeziness all sneak much-needed intelligence, wit, and speed into the film.
Mills also tosses in some interesting documentary information about the legal risks of homosexuality in the 1950s and the meaning of the colors in the Gay Pride rainbow. These change-ups and detours jostle the characters when they happen, but their effects don't last long enough; they feel like distracting hand gestures of an amateur magician trying to spice up a mediocre act. Oddly, Mills seems more comfortable when recording understated emotional shocks like those set off when, at the film's beginning, Oliver flushes his dead father's leftover medication down the toilet.
Oliver's deceased mom and dad linger in the film's gray, hazy interiors; even in flashback they are its two most vital human presences. As Hal, Plummer spends the film crafting the most noble and life-affirming death possible. His courage and zeal in the face of terminal illness is enviable, and he grows more flush and hardy as death inches closer. Not even the ditherings of his needy, idiotic boyfriend (Goran Visnjic) dim his twinkling vitality.
Mary Page Keller's tricky, minimalist performance as Oliver's prickly and disagreeable mother unsettles Beginners' placid surface as much as Plummer's presence calms it. Keller is a welcome disruption in every scene; in her anger and cynicism reside the life force that Oliver conspicuously lacks. Whether pretending to shoot her son with her index finger or laying her head on the shoulder of a blowhard museum-goer, Keller's sardonic, depthless misanthropy gives the movie a discomforting charge and a low-key romantic agony its other characters can only imagine.
Opens Friday, July 8th