Tuesday, June 28, 2011

We are all "Beginners"

Writer/director Mike Mills charms us with the tale of two people who don’t know how to have a relationship, but are loved by a wise dog who knows better than both of them. “Beginners” is a sweetly sad romantic comedy. 

The premise:  Oliver is a graphic artist, played by Ewan McGregor.  He draws cartoons, and he will do portraits if his business partner Shauna (China Shavers) twists his arm.  Oliver’s parents were married in 1955.  After 45 years of marriage, Oliver’s mother Georgia died, at which time his father Hal came out of the closet.  This was quite a surprise to Oliver, but he accepted it and saw his father fall in love for the first time, proving that one can be a beginner at age 75.  Hal lived his new life to the fullest, showing us all what consummate joy looks like.

Then Hal (a subtle, broad, outrageous, lovely performance by Christopher Plummer) gets cancer, lives happily in denial, then dies, leaving Oliver alone again, except for Arthur, who is a Jack Russell with a far more outgoing personality than Oliver.  Arthur (brilliantly played by Cosmo) is part of the family, gazing lovingly at Hal, expectantly at Oliver. 
Ewan McGregor as Oliver and Cosmo as Arthur.  (C) 2010 Focus Features

Beginners” goes back and forth in time, with illustrations of what the world looked like in these various eras to Oliver’s artistic eye:  pictures of the sun, the stars, the sky, the President of the United States, regular people, including his parents.  We see Oliver’s own time (the “present” of 2003), we see his parents’ time (a little 1938, a little late 1960s, early 1970s), and we see Oliver himself as a hardy young boy looking after his mother while the pair are neglected by his museum director father.

Oliver’s mother Georgia is a little prickly, a little sad, and very funny as played by Mary Page Keller.  She’s artistic and outrageous, loves her husband and her son, and is unbound by convention.  Young Oliver is well played by Keegan Boos.  This sophisticated young fellow is one of those children who are often the most responsible member of a household. 

Goran Visnjic is sweet and gentle, irresponsible and irrepressible as Andy, Hal’s younger lover.  We see this fascinating relationship in flashbacks, always through Oliver’s eyes.  The buoyant spontaneity of Andy and Hal dancing together, laughing, loving, is enough to spread happiness throughout the theatre.

Oliver’s sadness after his father’s death affects his work and his friendships. His mother’s gone, his father’s gone, and Arthur is a non-verbal conversationalist.  Oliver draws a cartoon about his sadness, which becomes the saddest running gag I’ve ever seen, and yet it’s funny.  No one but Oliver gets it, because no one is sad in just the same way that he is.  Yes, our hero is having a hard time getting over not only his father’s death, but his own complicated life.

Oliver’s friend Elliot (Kai Lennox) drags him to a masquerade party, where he meets Anna, who is dressed as Charlie Chaplin and writes questions on a pad since she has laryngitis.  Anna is a French actress who lives in hotels except when in New York, where she has a realistically small apartment.  She is delightfully, naturalistically, sensuously yet simply played by Mélanie Laurent. Arthur immediately approves, but the road to romance is rockier for humans than for canines.

I’m not giving away any spoilers here because I think everyone should see this film. The chemistry between Laurent and McGregor is not the stuff of torn clothing and scenes of slick sensuality.  These people are having fun, they’re children exploring and discovering, they’re frightened, and they’re exhilarated, all at the same time.  They’re beginners.

The film shows us old and new Los Angeles, alternately spare and lush.  Oliver draws cartoons illustrating his state of mind.  We see his dark little house, which is sparsely furnished and not visually interesting.  This is in direct contrast to his father’s lush home with pieces of art and vegetation everywhere, radiant light streaming through wide windows.  Mr. Mills showed us a good deal about his characters by letting us see them in real places instead of sets.

The soundtrack is wonderful, lighting evocative, settings just right.  An excellent production with the right people doing the right jobs — film editor was Olivier Bugge Coutté, production design was by Shane Valentino. Kasper Tuxen was Director of Photography, and of course the film was written and directed by Mike Mills.  Oh, and Cosmo was trained by Mathilde de Cagny.

Beginners” is the inventive, funny, original, unexpected story of Oliver’s quest for life and the pursuit of happiness. To achieve a new beginning, he looks at his past to see how he got here.  Happily, we get to go along for the ride.  The night I saw the film (which was the very night the New York State Senate approved the same-sex marriage bill, but before any of us knew that), some young members of the audience broke out in spontaneous applause at the end, a joyous sound I haven’t heard in quite some time.  "Beginners" is a charming romantic comedy with a neat twist and an irresistible Jack Russell.  As Arthur would say if he could talk:  Look up its showtimes and go see it.
(c) 2011 Focus Features

~ Molly Matera, who usually hates romantic comedies but loved this one, signing off.  Sweet dreams.

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