Monday, June 27, 2011

Film review: Plummer a standout, McGregor less so, in moving 'Beginners'

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in Beginners.‭
(‬Focus Features photo‭)

By John Thomason

There’s nothing funny about an old man,‭ ‬struck with terminal cancer,‭ ‬who only finds the courage to admit that he’s gay after the death of his wife of‭ ‬44‭ ‬years.

No,‭ ‬this is not material rife with comic potential,‭ ‬but sometimes laughter is the only way to cope.‭ ‬In his nuanced second feature‭ ‬Beginners,‭ ‬writer-director Mike Mills recognizes this,‭ ‬collecting a small ensemble of sad,‭ ‬lonely people and finding the humor that arises when other emotions seem intractably out of grasp.

The old man is named Hal Fields,‭ ‬and he’s portrayed,‭ ‬with wry,‭ ‬elegant gallantry,‭ ‬by Christopher Plummer.‭ ‬He is both dead and not dead for most of the picture,‭ ‬thanks to Mills‭’ ‬nonlinear structure.‭ ‬Hal’s depressed‭ (‬and depressing‭) ‬artist son Oliver‭ (‬Ewan McGregor‭) ‬tells us in the movie’s earliest stanzas the key facts about his father,‭ ‬namely his belated sexual outing,‭ ‬his sickness and his demise.‭

But we spend the rest of the picture drifting between Oliver’s present‭ – ‬spent dealing with his father’s postmortem baggage,‭ ‬and shadowed by dad’s clingy Jack Russell‭ – ‬his immediate past with the suddenly out-gay Hal,‭ ‬and his post-World War II childhood,‭ ‬where he watched his parents keep up appearances in a seemingly loveless arrangement.

Plummer is the movie’s most tragic character,‭ ‬and he gives its most authentic performance.‭ “‬I don’t want to be just theoretically gay,‭” ‬he tells his son,‭ ‬and his complete immersion into the gay lifestyle‭ – ‬meeting a young boyfriend through a dating service,‭ ‬subscribing to‭ ‬The Advocate,‭ ‬screening‭ ‬The Times of Harvey Milk with a roomful of activists‭ – ‬is convincing in its youthful abandon.‭ ‬Plummer explores this environment with a self-actualizing,‭ ‬hedonistic smile,‭ ‬the way a teenager might when he first discovers his loins.

But‭ ‬Beginners is McGregor’s movie‭; ‬he’s in nearly every scene,‭ ‬and his listless performance tends to weigh down the proceedings.‭ ‬As in some of his other pictures‭ (‬Cassandra’s Dream,‭ ‬I Love You Phillip Morris‭)‬,‭ ‬he’s a blank slate that rarely becomes full,‭ ‬a cipher from an old Bresson film.‭ ‬If this were a movie that warranted inexpressiveness,‭ ‬he would make a model mannequin,‭ ‬but he’s supposed to be a compelling,‭ ‬brooding protagonist discovering love for the first time‭ – ‬in the form of Melanie Laurent’s Anna,‭ ‬an actress he meets at a costume party while dressed,‭ ‬amusingly,‭ ‬as Sigmund Freud.‭ ‬Instead,‭ ‬his work only feels static opposite the vibrancy of Laurent and Plummer.

McGregor’s work is best‭ – ‬and so is Mills‭’ – ‬when he’s not even on the screen,‭ ‬narrating photographic images of the past,‭ ‬present and future of the characters and the world around them.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬McGregor’s sterile monotone works,‭ ‬presenting an unforgiving society free of sentimentality‭ (‬over a monochrome image of a grimy bathroom,‭ ‬he tells us that this is the only place his father could be himself‭)‬.‭ ‬This is also where Mills most flexes the stylistic muscle he discovered while filming music videos for the likes of Moby,‭ ‬Pulp and Air.‭ ‬These riveting photographic essays,‭ ‬undoubtedly influenced by the flipbook-style films of Chris Marker,‭ ‬suggest an experimental director burrowing through the commercial confines of Indiewood narrative.

And it makes sense that Oliver would deliver information in these distancing,‭ ‬Dadaist diversions.‭ ‬Like the enigmatic,‭ ‬inaccessible drawings he creates and the esoteric graffiti he plasters on public spaces,‭ ‬he’s one of the film’s many victims of ill communication,‭ ‬unable to say what he needs,‭ ‬when he needs and to whom he needs.‭

The two characters Oliver most talks to‭ – ‬Anna and Arthur,‭ ‬the Jack Russell‭ – ‬both suffer from their own aphasia‭; ‬the silent Anna has laryngitis when she meets Oliver,‭ ‬and Arthur is a dog‭ (‬though we can read his funny/heartbreaking thoughts via subtitles in a Woody Allen-like recurring bit‭)‬.‭ ‬And Hal,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬went‭ ‬44‭ ‬years without saying what he felt.‭ ‬But he proves that it’s never too late to start anew,‭ ‬and to do so with a smile‭ – ‬even in the face of death.

BEGINNERS.‭ Director:‭ ‬Mike Mills‭; ‬Cast:‭ ‬Ewan McGregor,‭ ‬Christopher Plummer,‭ ‬Melanie Laurent,‭ ‬Goran Visnjic‭; ‬Distributor:‭ ‬Focus Features‭; ‬Rating:‭ ‬R‭; ‬Opens:‭ ‬Friday‭; ‬Venue:‭ ‬Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬Coral Gables Art Cinema and Regal South Beach‭ ‬18.

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