By Laurie Coker
Unlike his surprise hit Once, Dubliner John Carney’s latest film Begin Again’s credits roll through the names of some far more famous faces. Keira Knightly and Mark Ruffalo lead a cast of knowns and unknowns through a tender story of relationship recovery and self-discovery. In spite of its heart-string-pulling corniness, Carney’s film, while not nearly as effective or good as his Once, does please in its harmony.
Ruffalo plays Dan, a passionate, hard-drinking record executive, who loses his job (and his company) in one day. Estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and teen daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), Dan goes looking for the next thing in Indy music, and he finds Greta (Knightly), a talented singer songwriter, recently dumped by her pop-star, boy idol-esque boyfriend (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine). At first Greta is reluctant to share her gift and more than anything, she is looking to move back to London, but Dan is persuasive and convinces Greta to stay. The pair, while never romantically involved, makes great music together all over New York City, producing an album with the city sounds as its backdrop.
Ruffalo and Knightly have decent on-screen chemistry and delightful comic sprinklings come from James Corden, who plays Greta’s best friend, Steve. Carney’s cast delights and were it a lesser match-up, I am not sure Begin Again would work quite as well as it does. Because the stars mesh so nicely, we hear the music and Carney’s message more clearly.
Of note is the exceptional way Carney takes us, in flashback snapshots, through the lives of its main characters, showing us the why and the how they came to find each other and the role of music in their lives. The film’s soundtrack mostly likely will not have the same impact as that of Once, because it harbors songs that’s lyrics are far more trite and less resonate to a wide audience. Greta’s songs (mostly written by Gregg Alexander – formerly of the New Radicals) lack depth and passion, leaving us a bit weary by the end. Still, they aren’t as bad as I feel I am making them out to be.
I honestly enjoyed the journey with Dan and Greta. There is a freshness in seeing the collaboration both real (from this talented pairing) and fictionalized through the characters. Greta, with Knightly’s natural and irresistible appeal, charms everyone – or perhaps puts a magical enchantment on us all – reviving Dan’s career and renew his relationship with his wife and daughter and sorting out her own life. It’s a bit sugary, but pleasing nonetheless.
As a follow up to a his surprise hit, Once, Begin Again, might seem a bit too pat. It does lack the darker realism depicted in the previous film and the musical strength, but the ruggedly alluring Ruffalo and Corden’s and his quirky comedy coupled with Knightly make up for many of the film’s faults. I am placing a C+/B- in my grade book. It’s sweetly satisfying.