Beginners is a film that fights its own success. Each of the film's positives bounces off an equal negative, neutering the experience. Although it's certainly not intentional, writer/director Mike Mills hangs an invisible plea over every scene. Because this is about older people and heavy things, we should forgive that it is just a more mature variation on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Because it is emotionally raw, we should forgive that it is also cutesy and filled with the same kinds of twee quirks as far too many modern romances. And because it is based on a true story (that of Mills' relationship with his own father), we should forgive that it's held at an almost automatic distance from the viewer, limiting them to observation rather than a deeper investment.
Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a 38-year-old graphic artist whose work is mostly unsatisfying and whose love life is is going nowhere. He is recovering from the recent death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who, at age 75, following the passing of Oliver's mother (Mary Page Keller), decided to come out of the closet. In his final four years, as he slowly succumbed to lung cancer, Hal lived it up while Oliver stood by, supportive but conflicted over the memory of his parents' 45-year marriage. Oliver is conflicted enough that he remains so even after Hal's death, allowing those neuroses to spill over into a blossoming fling with a French actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent). Mills weaves between the then and now, often using an effect similar to sense memory to dictate a switch between one or the other.
Right from the beginning, Mills' style feels like a burden on the picture, butting into Plummer's delivery of Hal's coming out for a silly joke about sweatshirts. Later, when Hal is informed he has a cancerous mass "the size of a quarter," Mills puts a quarter on-screen. It's kind of effective, but Mills mutes the effect by then showing 25 cents in nickels and then pennies. When Oliver first meets Anna, they're at a Halloween costume party, and Anna is unable to speak due to laryngitis, so she communicates by writing on a notepad. Even when there are elements of truth or humor to be found in the more fanciful elements, Mills fails to make them feel truly natural, breaking the realistic connection the film tries to create between the audience and Oliver and the people in his life.
The performances are excellent across the board. Plummer seems to be everyone's favorite, stepping into the next stage of his life with a certain enthusiasm, but as good as it is (and it is good), it's the easiest one to play: funny and vibrant, complete with terminal-illness touches and a tragic layer of denial. He is measured, giving little where weaker actors would give a lot, but at no point did his work surprise me. Laurent exerts some visible effort to keep her character rooted in the real world, giving her an awkward sad side that seems to come more from the actress and her thoughts on the character than anything dictated by Mills' screenplay. However, the film belongs to McGregor, who carefully juggles everything on Oliver's emotional plate in every scene, adjusting the levels based on each situation. Although his charm and attractiveness are not significantly muted, Oliver is worn around the edges in a natural, believable way, affected by the weight of caring for his father and trying to sort out his emotions. He also has a great co-star in Cosmo, who plays his Hal's Jack Russell terrier Arthur. Cosmo may be one of the best animal performers of all time; he's so expressive and adorable, it's hardly a strain when Mills subtitles his thoughts.
Even with these performances, however, Mills places himself in a corner the film can't get around, writing from the same distance as his lead character, before filtering everything it through that burdensome style. The film plays like a clinical, mechanical way of working through complex emotional issues, and Mills frequently seems to arrive at neat explanations for things that may be sort of inexplicable. Life doesn't reflect the same kind of set-up and payoff structure that hangs over most of the movie, and even though the actors are free to play inside various boxes, each box fits cleanly into the dramatic structure of an easy-to-digest motion picture. Although the film is inescapably dictated by the subject matter (it's right there in the title), the spark of excitement the film ends on is the place a film should strive to begin.
Beginners comes with artwork that recreates the movie's theatrical poster. Given all of Mills' skills as an artist, you'd think that the poster might've been a little more inspired than a few pictures of McGregor, Laurent and Plummer, but it is still the poster, so I can't complain too much. Not sure the back cover does much to convey the movie's style or tone either. The case is a standard Viva Elite case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Although this 1080p 1.85:1 VC-1 encoded transfer is a real knockout every once in awhile, most of the film's presentation is dogged by weak contrast that flattens the image. For almost the entire first half of the movie, blacks are a light gray, even in outdoor scenes, like the early bit where Oliver meets with Hal's friends and they light off fireworks. If the film had remained like this through the entire movie, that'd be one thing, but past the halfway mark, there are a few random shots -- Oliver and Hal in the kitchen, Oliver leaving Arthur with Andy -- where inks suddenly get naturally black and the film suddenly pops with a really powerful high-definition punch. There is also, in one single scene near the end of the movie when McGregor is in his room (1:24:10), a series of thin red lines running vertically on the image, which the director doesn't mention on his commentary track, so I have to guess they're unintentional. That said, fine detail is very good, and I didn't detect any other glitches, compression artifacts, or noise in the darkness.
An English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is low-key, but has a wonderfully subtle presence that I appreciated. Although the film has a naturalistic look, the sound feels sort of encapsulated and ever-so-slightly heightened instead of harsh and unrefined. Voices are very "present." The music has a nice dynamic range. I think the best word for the presentation here is "reserved." audio Spanish DTS 5.1 is also included, as are English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and Spanish and French subtitles.
"A Short Film About Beginners" (14:32, HD) is an "in-character" EPK, featuring cast and crew interviews that wouldn't really seem out of place in a more formal featurette, but done in a style more befitting the film. A nice touch, I suppose, but the style doesn't make it any more informational or entertaining -- it's still an EPK. The most interesting bit -- or, perhaps, the bit for emotional suckers, like me -- is the stretch about Cosmo the dog, who everyone obviously loves. Video extras are rounded out by a short "Beginners Promo" (1:01, HD), of Mills narrating over some drawings.
The most substantial extra here is an audio commentary by Mills. Although he discusses the expected topics -- working with actors, the dog, the sets, the themes, real-life influence on the story -- he also dives into some technical aspects, like the lighting setups, which some aspiring filmmakers will find useful.
If your player is connected, the disc loads a random, current selection of Universal trailers from the internet before going to the main menu (and there are plenty of them -- I loaded the disc three times, and got three entirely different sets of trailers). The original theatrical trailer for Beginners is not included.
Fans of McGregor, Laurent or Plummer will probably enjoy the performances, which have a crucial spontaneity, vibrancy, and emotional depth. The film itself, however, is disappointing, failing to match the actors by assigning a cause-and-effect neatness to its plot that feels inauthentic. Rent it.
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