Friday, July 29, 2011

Beginners Movie Review

What happens when a gay person feels compelled by the shame of societal norms to remain in the closet for the vast majority of his life? What if that person married and had a child? What would be left behind in the motional wreckage wrought by such a deception? Beginners seeks to explore these questions, not so much in an obvious way, but through the quiet reflections of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), who informs us at the beginning that his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), came out to him 4 years before dying of cancer at the age of 75.

The film meanders, or floats even, between different timelines. There’s the present day thread that takes place in 2003 and runs linearly. But as events in Oliver’s life call forth memories, there are nearly seamless shifts to the past. The past timelines include both the time after he learned of his father’s sexuality, but before his death, and some moments from his childhood while his mother was still living and suffering a sadness palpable even to Oliver. Or perhaps the benefit of hindsight infuses his memories with those emotions.

Oliver is a little bit lost in his life. He seems to have a good job creating album artwork, although his current project may be a little too high-minded for the band. But he remains emotionally distant, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by his colleagues, who are shocked when they spy him fetching two drinks at a Halloween party. The second is for Anna (Melanie Laurent) with whom he has a “meet cute” while he’s dressed as Freud and giving psychoanalysis to everyone. She sees right through him to locate the sadness behind his eyes. She’s an actress who travels around a lot, but thinks maybe she can bring happiness into his life. And a sweet relationship is born. Oliver’s problem, however, is his persistent inability to allow true intimacy. He admits to cutting off relationships before they find a groove.

Maybe I have low expectations after years of films written by formula, but I count it as one of the film’s strengths that he doesn’t feel the need to telegraph the audience that maybe his father’s suppressed sexuality and parents’ cold relationship shaped his life. We know this by inference because as a screenwriter, Mike Mills (who also directed) does an admirable job of treating the audience as his intellectual equal.

Oliver tells us that after his father came out he started dressing differently. He started going to clubs. One night he calls quite late to describe his first experience of House music. He gets a boyfriend, a much younger man named Andy (Goran Visnjic, sporting the only movie haircut worse than Anton Chigurgh’s). There could be a whole separate film that explores how the relationship between father and son changes. While there is some, Beginners is more about the direct effects on Oliver’s life.

The film’s biggest weakness is its performances. Plummer has some good moments, being the only actor in the film playing a character that has real emotional range. McGregor, fine actor that he is, isn’t given sufficient character material to match his talents. I found myself too often frustrated by his general mopiness. There are only so many times I can watch McGregor run his hands through his hair out of desperation. Ditto for Laurent, so wonderful in the recent Inglourious Basterds, but here saying little and doing even less. She has incredibly expressive eyes, but that only takes a character so far. The fault may lie in Mills’ direction, which seems to rely on a less-is-more approach.

One of the film’s nice little conceits is the way images flash across the screen on a few occasions as Oliver explains that “this is what X looked like in” a particular time period. “This is what sad looked like in 1955,” he tells us and we see that all that’s changed are the styles. Of course people are fundamentally the same now as they were a half century ago. The point, I suppose, is that although people and things look very similar on the outside across generations, the norms of a society fundamentally change us on the inside.

We can marvel at how far we’ve come in fifty years. More states are legalizing same sex marriage. Homosexuals can finally serve openly in the military. There is the start of a national conversation on the meanings of all these things. The questions is, when we look back at ourselves fifty years from now, what will be the black marks in our past. What will the pictures of smiling faces from 2011 be covering up?

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