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September 4, 2011

Beginners (2011)
Director: Mike Mills
Actors: Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer

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Synopsis: Graphic artist, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), embarks on a tentative relationship with a French woman, Anna (Mélanie Laurent) in Los Angeles. As the relationship develops, Oliver focuses back on the late-life blossoming of his recently-deceased father (Christopher Plummer) to help guide him.

Review: The opening affectations of Beginners had me on smarm alert as this comedy-drama from Mike Mills seemed overly configured to be “quirky”: like an inferior rip-off of the kind of work put out by Michel Gondry or Noah Baumbach (Beginners loosely resembles the brilliant Greenberg.) Ultimately, the film’s game spirit won me over, and though it overloads on the charm and pathos, it weirdly succeeds in spite of those gooey contrivances.

The contributions of the three main actors are key to the film’s overwhelmingly endearing quality. Oliver and Anna’s tentative love affair on paper looks gratingly twee, and Mills seems unable to write a scene for them without some form of cutesy plot hook – be it they first meet in fancy dress, that Anna has laryngitis so has to write all her feelings down on post-it notes, there’s an impromptu rollerblading date, and then of course there’s Oliver’s dog having to accompany them on each of their nights out. Somehow though, Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent imbue the relationship with viability and no little poignancy. And, despite the eccentric scenarios the narrative places them in, their characters are scored firmly in a form of naturalism and the concerns of the ‘real world’ are never far from permeating their magic bubble.

If McGregor and Laurent are good, then Christopher Plummer is exceptional. Landed with the tricky task of conveying in flashback how his character (Oliver’s father) goes through a metamorphosis at the age of 75 by coming out and embracing the spontaneity of life, Plummer totally nails it and avoids the easy trick of making laughable the father’s late blossoming, when it’s actually rather serious and affecting. I’m not much of an Academy Awards devotee but I’d love to see Plummer get a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role here – it really is superb. (September 2011)

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