There’s not a lot going on in Beginners, a mumblecore film with a budget, the kind that believes that having its central lovers (Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent) stare at one another in silence is the epitome of emotion. It attempts to draw parallels between the mid-life melancholy of McGregor’s character and his father’s recent revelation of having been a gay man throughout the forty-four years that he had been married. His father is beginning his life anew, you see, experiencing things for the first time as a real boy: he goes out to dance clubs, shoots off fireworks and screams obscenities toward the wind. Oliver (McGregor) is beginning a new relationship after decades of failed romances and somehow this is incredibly meaningful. Oliver draws one-panel cartoons about the crushing despair of sadness and loneliness in order to help illustrate (get it?) his angst for the audience, and if that’s not quirky enough for you his dog talks in subtitles.
I suppose you can tell I didn’t care much for the film. I’m not opposed to the central theme, about remaining open to new experiences even in the face of certain doom – exemplified by the cheerful demeanor that Oliver’s father (Christopher Plummer) maintains even after learning that he has inoperable lung cancer. Hell, I’m not even turned off by the way that the film forgoes a traditional structure, choosing not to work in the three-act rise-and-fall that was good enough for my father and his father before him. Instead, the movie drifts wistfully between three different time/story-lines: from Oliver’s relationship with his father after the coming out, to his blooming relationship with the mercurial actress Anna (Laurent), to Oliver as a child trying to understand his peculiar mother. Where the film fails, in my eyes, is in its refusal to make anything more of these building blocks. Instead of strong ideas that fail to cohere, the film feels more like the very loosest of ideas strewn together in a haphazard fashion – like a brainstorm web that was never developed any further.
Take Oliver’s relationship with his mother, for instance. Other critics tend to point to Plummer’s role as the film’s highlight, but I was most intrigued by the unsociable way that Oliver’s mother acted when he was a child, laying her head on one woman’s shoulder and telling another matter-of-factly that her child’s appendix had ruptured when in fact it had not. She seems mentally unbalanced, at times, and at other times just unhappy. Filtering these childhood memories through the prism of Oliver as an adult makes for a chain of cause and effect I’d love to look more deeply into. What exactly causes his mother to act the way that she does, and what effect does this ultimately leave in Oliver’s own psyche? The movie never makes a convincing case that these asides have much correlation to the rest of the film, except for maybe the broad observation that the boy’s parents shared a loveless marriage for the majority of their lives.
So what about Plummer’s portion? His is the most on-the-nose of the three, a surface-level tale of a man who lights up for the first time in his life when he is allowed to take said life into his own hands. The joy that Plummer exudes in the role is indeed infectious, but where the mother’s story had depth that went unexplored, here there’s little mystery. Everything seems to come back to the man’s new-found zest for life, so much that even a personal ad which paints the man as sexually promiscuous – written in response to his lover’s lack of monogamy – is received as yet another of his high-spirited hijinks. The closest that this thread comes to deeper levels of sincerity is in a tender moment where father and son hold hands, the older man regretfully disclosing that he had avoided showing outward affection to his son when he was a child based on a fear of social reprisal. This is but a small moment, however; its brief time in the spotlight fades in the face of the father laughing and having drinks with a new group of gay friends, wearing a smile while cuddling with his lover, or flirting with a male nurse.
Finally, there’s Oliver’s budding chemistry with Anna. Their silliness – walking backward through piles of leaves, spray-painting trivia on the sides of buildings, rollerskating through hotel hallways – is much too precious to approach with any seriousness. Unlike in great romance films such as Say Anything or Atonement, the two do not appear to share a deeper connection than their mutual penchant for holding others at arm’s length. I understand that the concept here is likely that the couple truly is doomed to follow the same patterns as in Oliver’s prior relationships, but that they learn to live life to its fullest in the short time that’s afforded to the pairing, but simply inviting another person into your house, no matter how metaphorical you try to make it, simply cannot sufficiently replace character development. Unlike the threads of plot discussed above, the problem with Anna is not that she brings too much or too little depth to the proceeding, but instead that the meaning of her involvement in Oliver’s life comes across as having been forced into alignment.
Hence, my comparison earlier to a brainstorm web. There are small shots of ecstasy, but they’re dropped in randomly without any real organization. The dog mistakes an older man for Oliver’s father late in the film, a gut-wrenching moment which comes out of nowhere and is over just as quickly. Do Oliver’s sudden pangs of despondency somehow factor into the larger theme about relishing what you have while you have it, and if so how so? Why return to the current occupant of the White House when discussing different moments in time in voice-over?
Why make an awkward string of sketchy half-musings when all the audience wants is a portrait?