Watching a lot of movies in a row can scramble the brain, but it can also let those movies reflect on and inform one another. For example, the Oscars Death Race is a time of year when I tend to see a lot of Mark Strong and wonder why he isn't getting anything good to do (more on that tomorrow), or turn to Couch Baron during a…there is a name for this shot, I think, but let's call it a twelve-o'clock shot, with the camera positioned over the center of a stairwell, and I'll say to CB, "It's time to put a moratorium on that shot as a shortcut for protagonist alienation for a period of five years."
It's a great thing, or at least a thing I really dig, because it's the filmgoing equivalent of people-watching at the international terminal, and it immerses me in film grammar, beautiful and busted. I've really benefited from it — but not every movie does, and (behold, my point!) that's the case with Beginners, which failed to show well in comparison with the movie I'd seen before it, Meek's Cutoff.
The difference could come down to a matter of taste — I don't dislike a broad bloody Black Swan mess now and then, but I usually prefer a story that hides and hints and lets me think. Beginners capers about quite desperately for the viewer's affection, and it's not as snotty about it as, say, Garden State — but therein lies its problem, I think. The difference between Beginners and Meek's Cutoff, I posit, is actually one of confidence. Meek's Cutoff has a simple story to tell and trusted its simplicity fully; there's a lot to like about Beginners, but writer/director Mike Mills isn't sure of any of it — so he throws all of it onscreen. Historical montages. Time jumps. A dirty-haired French actress with daddy issues. A dog who's subtitled…and not just any breed of dog, but a curly-coated Jack Russell Terrier, the go-to for expressively cute ear action. The actual story here, I think, is that a man's father comes out of the closet late in life, then dies a few years later, and how does his adult son deal with that, and that's plenty. William Trevor made a tidy living out of variations on that story, the revelation of an act or breakdown long past, the talking about it via not really talking about it while wearing big sweaters, the non-sterile kitchens in which we do our emotional business. You can't tell a new story, odds are, but you can tell the one you've got well, without pantsing around with line drawings about the history of sadness.
…Oh, I know. It sounds dreadful. The thing is, though, that bit is confidently done and has a nice payoff that's elided just so. As I said, there's a lot to like; Goran Visnjic, playing the dad's boyfriend, is saddled with a bad Prince Valiant, but that character is sharply observed, and his neediness and interrogations of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) about Oliver's discomfort also pay off nicely towards the end. McGregor himself seems somewhat at sea, and he's morphing physically into mid-'90s Frank Whaley, which is not a welcome development, but it's not entirely his fault, given the script; the excellent Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) is lumped with the continental variation on the manic pixie dream girl, and does a good job convincing us that 1) her character isn't obnoxious and 2) would have any interest in the sadness of Oliver's sack. (Ew, sorry.)
Christopher Plummer, meanwhile, is fantastic as Hal Fields. The script got me on its side quite quickly with the exchange in which Plummer carefully writes down the phrase "house…music" on a pad next to his phone while enunciating it aloud, and he's just as good in the more complex areas of the role, the tension between what he wants for himself in the time he has left, and the urge to apologize to his son for a lie he felt he had no choice about.
But it's not quite enough. Wes Anderson gets away with his intra-film charm offensives because he has a plan for them, a context, a job he wants them to do aside from showing off. Mills is putting on every accessory in the drawer in the hopes that we'll like him and his characters, and it shows. The New Yorker's Brody had a similar disappointed-sigh reaction to mine: "Even several intelligently compiled and poignant historical montage sequences have their substance spoiled by the strain for kooky charm." The laryngitis when Oliver and Anna first meet is a good example; I liked the phone conversation conducted via number beeps, but to introduce us to her that way is too much, piled on top of the interstitial sketches Oliver does and the dog asking in subtitles if they're married yet and that the boyfriend is a demolitions expert who has access to fireworks (of course he does), so the sweetly genuine scenes in the midst get overwhelmed. I'm thinking particularly of a little vignette with Hal's home nurse and hair product; it's cute and bittersweet, but it goes on too long and it should have come sooner in the story.
Beginners needed to look in the mirror and take one thing off. And then another thing. (Maybe starting with the schizo set design. Oliver is a graphic designer; is it intentional that his apartment looks like a catalog/frat mash-up? And can I just have my little side rant here about tab-top curtains? Great: I hate them. They look cheap. Even a safety-pinned tapestry doesn't look as half-assed; use that instead. AB Chao, back me up here?) It's not terribly self-regarding and tired like Garden State, but the opposite problem, the story's poor self-esteem about itself, is almost as laborious. Likeable, with good performances and moments along the way, but not an overall success. Should pick up an acting nom, but probably will not.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Christopher Plummer Couch Baron Ewan McGregor Frank Whaley Goran Visnjic Mark Strong Melanie Laurent Mike Mills movies Oscars 2012 Death Race simmer down freshman that special breed of '90s foolishness Wes Anderson William Trevor