Film Review: “Beginners”

by Jason LeRoy on June 10, 2011

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in BEGINNERS

starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic

written and directed by: Mike Mills

MPAA: Rated R for language and some sexual content.

Beginners is a melancholy romantic drama, a navel-gazing meditation on the concepts of happiness and sadness, and most successfully, an moving and unexpected story about both learning and unlearning from our parents. Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, a late-30s graphic designer living in LA. As the film begins, Oliver is mourning the loss of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer).

Hal survived his wife, Georgia (an excellent Mary Page Keller), Oliver’s mother, by four years. And when she passed away, Hal made a decision that startled his son: he came out as gay at the age of 75. So for his final four years, Hal decided to live life to the fullest/gayest: joining gay activity groups, parading around in jaunty little scarves, hanging out at Akbar, and even getting a much younger boyfriend, Andy (Goran Visnjic). Oliver, meanwhile, feels incapable of embracing his father’s joie de vivre. Withdrawn and somewhat antisocial, Oliver is challenged to lower his drawbridge when he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress temporarily living in LA.

The second feature from writer/director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), Beginners has a nonlinear narrative that jumps back and forth between Oliver’s childhood, the final four years of Hal’s life, and Oliver’s present-day relationship with Anna. It is seen through the eyes of Oliver, who processes things visually with snapshots and sketches (a device which walks a thin line between clever and precious). The overall tone is moody and contemplative, far more emotionally bleak than I’d anticipated. This is not the celebratory romp you might be expecting from the marketing.

One shortcoming about Beginners is that the A story, Oliver and Anna, is far less interesting than the B story, Hal embracing his septuagenarian sexuality. The A story is just a bit too Greenberg for my tastes – an antisocial 40ish LA artist meets a quirky blonde and tries facing his shit. (But this film is far gentler and less abrasive.) Neither Oliver nor Anna are especially compelling or sympathetic; they seem to bond over their shared affinity for wallowing and self-pity, although at least Oliver acknowledges in his voiceover that such angst is a privilege his father wasn’t afforded.

Another drawback in the film is Visnjic’s character, an emotionally unstable manchild with unkempt hair and ill-fitting clothes. He taps into the same aggressively awkward energy as Diego Luna’s film-hijacking performance in Milk. For example, Andy has the tendency of accusing people of discriminating against him if he feels even remotely slighted. “It’s because I’m gay!” he’s always shrieking. Um, no, it’s because you’re a crazy person.

Still, the three central performances are remarkable. McGregor does tender vulnerability better than just about anyone. Laurent, in her first major American role since her incendiary turn in Inglourious Basterds, is luminous and complex. And as for Plummer, it will be utterly criminal if he doesn’t receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his bold, sensitive work here. The film only approaches greatness when he is onscreen. And despite some illuminating historical perspectives on homosexuality, this is not a “gay movie.” It is a truly universal story about children looking to their parents to gain a greater understanding of themselves, and the surprising truths therein.

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