new film: BEGINNERS,

[movie review]

Beginners (2011)
Written and Directed by Mike Mills, starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent and Goran Visnjic

Running Time: 105 min. Rating: 2.5

Reviewed by Scott Marks (NPR in San Diego’s chief film critic and Martin Scorsese consultant)

Mike Mills’ first feature, Thumbsucker, (2005), is a double threat, an intelligent teen comedy along the lines of Igby Goes Down and Easy A, that is also the only anti-drug film since Drugstore Cowboy that has something to spiel other than “Just Say No.” You know the old adage that pot leads to harder drugs? Mills argues that thumb sucking leads to psychotropic drugs which will eventually put you on the road to reefer.

I had wondered from time to time what became of Mike Mills. After Thumbsucker, the writer-director pretty much sat out the remainder of the decade. Beginners is his first theatrical release in six years.

Hal (Christopher Plummer) lived only five of his 75 years as an out homosexual. After his wife of 45 years dies, Hal decides to kick open the closet door. He feels like a kid again and that kid is a much younger boy toy named Andy (Goran Visnjic). Hal’s real kid, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), discovers “this new dad” after Hal passes away. There among dad’s personal belongings Oliver finds a gay dating ad. Told in flashback, Beginners never wallows in maudlin angst, but when it was over the film could have stood a little more “I Never Sang for My Gay Father” and a lot less, “Can’t Stop Singing about My Jewish/French Heterosexual Girlfriend.” As Anna, Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) hands in a radiant performance, but her presence seems somewhat out of place in a film that can’t decide whether it’s about a son coming to terms with his dead dad’s sexuality or a romantic comedy.

We’re supposed to believe that Oliver is applying everything he learned from dad to his relationship with Anna and subsequently things he learns from Anna help to ease his father‘s passing. Wanting to add drama where it isn’t needed, Mills devises a pat reason to splinter the couple in order to bring about a happy reunion. They don’t argue about living together, they bicker over whether or not they should move in together. The film occasionally buckles under the weight of its own adorableness. Oliver and Anna join hands and roller skate through hotel corridors and office buildings. Oliver’s parent’s relationship is condensed into a compact, well-assembled photo montage, a nice touch until Mills decides to hammer home the technique throughout the rest of the film. Even Arthur, Hal’s Jack Russell terrier that becomes an heirloom with a tail, can’t help but eat a bowl of cute. Arthur is a Pantheon pooch, right up there with Bogart’s pal Pard in High Sierra and Mr. Bascomb, Jerry Lewis’ cartoonish Great Dane in Hollywood or Bust. Did we really need so many subtitled reaction shots that give us access to the mutt’s inner-thoughts? What will be remembered come awards season is Plummer’s remarkable, highly appealing performance. With raging hormones to spare, the veteran actor zips across the screen like a besotted teenage boy eager to try out his new equipment. I need another romcom like I need a head in my hole. The last five years of Hal’s life, and his relationship with his ethereal canine companion, would have made for a much more compelling two hours in the dark.

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