Mark Ruffalo plays an A&R man trying to make a star out of musician Keira Knightley in "Begin Again." Credit: The Weinstein Company Mark Ruffalo plays an A&R man trying to make a star out of musician Keira Knightley in "Begin Again."
Credit: The Weinstein Company

 

'Begin Again'
Director: John Carney
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

 

Filmmaker John Carney scored a massive, unstoppable phenomenon with “Once,” a low-budget “stealth musical” (as he has called it) that is now on Broadway and elsewhere. Though he is a former musician, he does films outside the musical genre. But he returns with “Begin Again,” which tries to do something similar to “Once” but in New York City. How’d it go?

 

It’s about the music biz this time


“Once” had a foot in the production of the actual biz: Its earnest street musician (Glen Hansard) was trying to get a single recorded. “Begin Again” goes whole hog. There’s another earnest, if much more shy, musician: songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley) has just broken up with her jilting lover, a big-time sensitive rock star played by big-time sensitive rock star Adam Levine. But her on-screen, maybe-romantic partner is an A&R guy, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who’s hit rock bottom — both professionally and personally — until he spots Gretta strumming away on one of her plaintive numbers in an LES bar. He coaxes her to let him make her a star, albeit by breaking the rules and recording an album on the sort-of-fly in outdoor locations.

Keira Knightley gets dumped by Adam Levine, one of the handful of musicians acting in "Begin Again." Credit: The Weinstein Company Keira Knightley gets dumped by Adam Levine, one of the handful of musicians acting in "Begin Again."
Credit: The Weinstein Company

 

It’s a bleak view of music’s future


Though it tries to be optimistic about the art form, saying music will find a way, it’s at heart not very cheerful, even delusional. Small record labels, such as the one Dan is fired from early on, aren’t doing too hot, and it’s not clear how anyone who isn’t Adam Levine can actually make a living, let alone more than that. It doesn’t have answers, nor need it, but it doesn’t properly address some of the major concerns. In fact, it seems to duck many of them entirely. Dan and Gretta get so caught up in their new record that they throw caution to the wind, committing a few reckless acts without thinking of how they’ll affect their financial future. (Also Gretta’s street musician friend, who doesn’t appear to have another gig, still lives in Manhattan? Even those shoebox apartments aren’t cheap these days.) For all its real-life concerns, it’s still a movie.

Keira Knightley and James Corden make a cute song together in "Begin Again." Credit: The Weinstein Company Keira Knightley and James Corden make a cute song together in "Begin Again."
Credit: The Weinstein Company

 

Carney still has a gift for outside-the-box music sequence staging


Not only did the numbers in “Once” rise organically from the plot — as opposed to the traditional musical move of everyone busting into song and maybe dance as well — but they were creatively staged as well. They used the cinematic language, such as the one where Marketa Irglova sang a duet while walking down a nighttime street with a recording of Hansard’s music. Carney doesn’t cut back on this. One number finds Dan hearing Gretta play a song solo but imagining instruments coming to life to fill her song out. Others, alas, are more twee: Gretta recording a bitter song on her ex’s voicemail is a bit too cute, as is a similar number with her recording (and giggling) with said ex while they were still together. Not to mention, Dan and her are making this record outside, semi-impromptu, with no overdubs, and it sounds as good as it does? Pshah.

Yes, Keira Knightley plays the guitar in "Begin Again." Credit: The Weinstein Company Yes, Keira Knightley plays the guitar in "Begin Again."
Credit: The Weinstein Company

It is very, almost cartoonishly earnest


“Once” is very heart-on-its-sleeve, but “Begin Again” is beyond that. Ruffalo brings a ruffled, disreputable edge to a film that’s often times painfully sincere. (Knightley, for the record, is atypically and agreeably reserved.) The real low should have been a nice digression: Dan and Gretta go out for a night on the town while listening to an iPod through a split connector, taking turns playing the songs that mean the most to them. But the songs are the most obvious classic songs you’ve ever heard. There’s nothing personal about it, no risk of offending listeners with an eccentric choice. It’s just like, “Have you heard of Stevie Wonder?” It sums up the movie, which is earnest to a fault and afraid to say something that’s actually honest.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge