Begin Again: Movie Review
Cast: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, James Corden, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Ceelo Green, Mos Def
Director: John Carney
How do you follow a massive hit like Once?
As any musician will tell you, the second album syndrome is a difficult one to break through - and in the case of Once director John Carney, it's a case of maybe repeating yourself but on a bigger canvas with a wider appeal.
This time, it's the story of two disparate broken souls in New York; first, Ruffalo is Dan, a music producer who's not had a hit for years and who's just parted ways with the record company he founded with pal Saul (Mos Def); secondly, there's Greta (Knightley) , a UK singer / songwriter who's just split with her boyfriend, rocker Dave Kohl and is contemplating heading back to England.
Their paths cross at an open mic night, where Dan sees the potential in Greta and who is determined to get her signed up. With the power of no record label behind him, Dan pitches the idea that Greta will record an alfresco album with New York being the canvas for her to musically paint on, an idea that appeals to her opposition to overly produced music.
But along the way, both find themselves facing upto some home truths and looking to repair some broken bridges - from an ex wife and disenfranchised daughter (Dan) to dealing with an ex (Greta).
Begin Again is about as mainstream a feel-good romantic drama as you can get - a recognition from Carney that he can't repeat Once without swamping his next attempt in something so incredibly middle of the road that it becomes bland and mass marketable.
It's not without its occasional charm though; a brilliant visual flourish early on sees Dan focusing on the arrangement around Greta's open mic turn as she sings on. Instruments spring to life around her, as if operated by ghosts and it's a daring insight into how the creative mind works. Sadly, it's the one and only original touch in the piece that's just about as soulless and bland as the music that inhabits within.
Ruffalo has a rugged edge to Dan, a man who's teetering on the broken and looking for a way back up; a man whose fast-talking has worked for him before but who's now faltering in a world that no longer apparently needs him. And Knightley does as well as she can with a one-note character, who's initially strong but who falters into mediocrity once the on street recording of music starts and she inevitably begins to be a part of Dan's life and his domestic issues.
Ruffalo feels the most fleshed out of the characters with scenes of his relationship with his ex (Keener) giving the feeling of a past; contrast that with parts of Greta's story as she deals with the fall out from her ex (played by Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine), which feels cliched and stereotyped.
The saccharine levels of this rise pretty quickly as the sounds of the streets of New York form part of the album and the film - even if it's the tourist / picture postcard spots which form the majority of the locations. Throw in a cameo with a rapping Cee-Lo Green, it's all so sanitised and bland that Begin Again starts to feel like the complete antithesis to Once, a middle of the road creation that covers all the bases without any hint or frisson of excitement. (It's even got James Corden as a loveable busker....)
As a breezy piece of romantic drama, Begin Again will be to many people's cup of tea, but with a predictable story and pleasant acting, there's so much sugary inanity on show that it left me seeking a dentist after it had ended.