Saturday, July 30, 2011

Beginners (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Beginners" the new comedy drama by Mike Mills hits all the right notes of an indie film so predictably that it seems as formulaic and satisfying as a Starbucks coffee. Indeed, we have a curious body of a film with a rich texture, authentic characters and a cinematography appropriately frappacino-colored in soothing (if distracting) tones. But it is a little too familiar. A bit like a Noah Baumbach brewhaha with very appropriately subtle ha-has, well made and acted. I just expected a bit more.

The film stars Ewan Mcgregor as Oliver, a commercial illustrator who is depressed over the death of his father. His father, a likable sort (Christopher Plummer) is trapped in a joyless 9 to 5 marriage. At 73, after the mother passes away, the father comes out of the closet with a great sense of verve and relief. The father is cheerful and full of bravado. But Oliver remains in a rut. Through much of the movie he wears a face of subtle or pained sadness. And yes, the death of a parent from cancer or from anything, is one of the most painful and abrupt things that we ever have to face. But unless I missed something, Oliver just didn't seem happy at all with his father at any time. And shouldn't he have been? As his dad finds romantic happiness at 73? Oliver's gloom through a good half of the film frankly puzzled me. This seasonally challenged mood together with the sepia cinematography is a bit much.

Despite Oliver being a gloomy Gus he takes in his dad's dog, a telepathic terrier (yes I said telepathic) and cries silently at his desk while doodling a History of Sadness for a rock band. I liked the artwork. These lively illustrations coupled with the manic montages of iconic events from Suburbia to life in the 50s, to gay rights are some of the best in the film. These sequences give the film a satisfactory punch, vitally needed.

Oliver's life picks up. Or at least it should have. He meets Anna, a predictable bohemian French actress (Melanie Laurent) and they hit it off. Or do they? Despite this romantic fortune, Oliver still seems weighted down. Yikes. Then Anna starts crying.

The only character that seems to have any fun in the film is Oliver's father and the role could not have gone to a better man. Veteran actor Christopher Plummer keeps just the right mix between paternal worry, a disdain for convention and joie de vivre. There is not a false note in his performance. And even Oliver, for all his perpetual sadness is drawn with authenticity and heart. I just didn't comprehend all the melancholia.

"Beginners" is well acted and sure to please admirers of the indie crowd. But I craved to feel more range in the characters as they faced their challenges. The film is so artfully decorated in a low-grade depression, not all that depressing. It is a mumblecore for mumblecore's sake.
In real life, new beginnings are not so needlessly brown, nor so mumbling or sentimental.

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