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Review: 'Song One' is a bland 'Once' ripoff

But Anne Hathaway is once again at her best when she's grumpy and pissed-off.
Song One

Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn communicate through forgettable songs usually playeCinedigm

‘Song One’
Director:
Kate Barker-Froyland
Stars: Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Like its characters, “Song One” is deeply, sometimes painfully earnest. Part of you wants to hug it, shielding it from the criticism of mean jerks; another part wants to stick its head in the toilet. It’s a ripoff of “Once,” which it barely tries to hide. Its two lovers — played by Anne Hathaway and musician-turned-actor Johnny Flynn — communicate solely through music and pensive, doe-eyed stares, usually while perched atop a bridge. (There is seriously a lot of bridge perching. A drinking game would be fatal.) They’re so withdrawn they can barely speak, and the few words they can say in succession are steeped in tortured shyness. Instead they let the music speak for them, although it’s a knockoff melody, losing much in the copying.

Hathaway (also a producer) plays a character named Franny (it’s that kind of movie), an anthropology student who leaves Morocco for New York upon learning her brother, an L-train station folkie, has tumbled into a coma after walking in front of a cab. (If “Song One” does no other public good, it should encourage all urbanites to look before strutting into the street.) Franny discovers his favorite musician, Flynn’s James Forester, is in town, manages to befriend him and, after much staring and awkward but sensitive chatter, relocate to the bedroom — all while her brother is in a possibly fatal coma, mind you.

When Franny and James do hit the sheets, it’s genuinely alarming, as the characters and the film are both so meek that even removing a shirt seems forward. Once the delicate fiber has been soiled by sex, it retreats back into its original mealy-mouthed form, with its lovers making up tweely goofy tunes or sharing their favorite songs — just as Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley did in “Begin Again.” That film was a more ambitious take on “Once,” made by the same director, which, like “Song One,” failed to capture that film’s singular, scruffy charm. This is more modest than both of those, which is to say it doesn’t try very hard. Even for a romance detailing a fling, it goes limp well before the climax, while the songs are interchangeably forgettable, and staged with zero invention. (“Once” and “Begin Again” director John Carney, by contrast, devised clever cinematic ways to stage musical numbers. Even when they were grating the effort was appreciated.)

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“Song One” has one notable aspect, and that’s Hathaway. She doesn’t do much singing and she struggles to play shy; her stumbling through hesitant line readings is as painful to watch and listen to as it must have been for this showbiz kid to say. But she’s great at playing brittle and distant, and when Franny’s not macking on James, she tends to be enjoyably pissed off — at her workaholic academic wino mom (Mary Steenburgen), at the world, at herself. When Hathaway’s doing little but shooting out grumpy stares and rattling off passive-aggressive lines, it’s a wonder anyone could hate her.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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