If you want a dictionary definition of what a film critic means when he or she says a movie is “understated,” take a look at Mike Mills’* 2011 film Beginners. This film is doggedly determined to be quiet and thoughtful, long after many other films, even other indies, would have gotten loud and direct. The acting is a master class in underplaying, even from characters which might have been described on the page as “flamboyant gay man.” The music consists of mellow big-band classics which are older than its director’s parents. All of that understatement may not result in a film that you’d call “awesome,” but that’s not what Beginners is aiming for.
In typically straightforward style, Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) explains everything we’ll need to know via narration in the first five minutes: his mother died in 2003, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) came out as a gay man afterward, and his father tried to start his new life while also battling the cancer that would eventually end it. The movie flashes back on his father’s life as a gay man while showing Oliver’s present-day attempts to start a new relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds).
I noticed my biggest problem with Beginners right off the top: McGregor is putting on his American accent. I don’t think I’ve liked any of his roles in which he’s done that, and true to form, I thought he was the weakest actor in this film. He’s not bad, exactly, but the accent is as flat and affectless as his performance. Oliver has been thrown into a deep sadness by his parents’ death, but it’s the sort of sadness that’s not very cinematic. His friends even joke about it: Sad Oliver just isn’t that interesting to be around. Unfortunately it’s difficult to do anything with a character who’s in that place; most of the characters in the movie benefit from being underplayed, but Oliver could have been done a bit bigger.
Oliver’s sadness is shrouded in a weird sort of whimsy that some viewers might call “quirk” – a term applied so often to American independent cinema that it’s starting to lose all meaning. Oliver works as a graphic designer, which allows the film to illustrate his melancholy in an amusing way via hand-drawn pictures (“My Personality Was Created By Someone Else And All I Got Was This Stupid T-Shirt”). Some of the pastimes that he, Anna, and their friends take part in include roller skating and ironic graffiti – i.e., things that look much more hip and fun in the movies than they actually are in real life.
However, the key sign that Beginners is not a quirky American indie film is that Anna is nothing like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is a damaged and reticent person on the page, and Laurent is quite good at adding a degree of anger to that. There’s the impression that Anna would kick your ass if you even presumed to think she could “save” you. One wonders how much of Laurent’s own life influenced the role – although she may not have Anna’s broken home, she is a French actress who travels the world living out of hotels, and that can’t be easy on one’s attempts at a relationship.
The mirror of the Oliver/Anna relationship is Hal’s attempts to find love again in his 70s. He finds a man named Andy, and I was shocked to find that Andy is played by Goran Visnjic, whose guttural Croatian growl dominated the last decade of the television series ER. Plummer won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar – and rightly so, the scene in which Hal tries to explain to Oliver what his marriage was like is Oscar material by itself – but he didn’t have to transform himself for the role in the way that Visnjic did, and I found that equally impressive.
Much like Anna, Andy has some personal issues which are only hinted at, but which keep him from being any kind of Manic Pixie Dream Guy. Given that Plummer gives a much better performance than McGregor, that actually makes the Hal/Andy relationship the more interesting one in the film. They deliver the impression of people who are fighting to maintain their love despite their extensive personal problems, something that Anna and Oliver don’t quite do. This despite the fact that their story is mostly obscured; the movie is from Oliver’s perspective and there’s a lot that he never knows about his father’s social life.
Part of the problem is that the Oliver/Anna relationship seems a little too much like a movie, from the meet-cute at a Halloween party to the predictable moment when things go on the rocks. The screenplay makes the interesting suggestion that the younger characters have had such easy and leisurely lives compared to Oliver’s parents, that relatively minor problems in their relationships are amplified. I liked that idea, but it seems shunted to the side, not a main aspect of the movie like it could be. McGregor and especially Laurent are good enough to make it work, but Plummer is so terrific that you expect a lot more from the other actors.
In the end, Beginners is simply a very nice movie. There’s not much about it to disagree with and even the worst performance in the movie succeeds to some degree. I would have liked more forceful work from McGregor or more screen time for Plummer, but on the whole this movie is a positive experience. It’s one of those rare movies which has a strong life-affirming message without having any of the stereotypically Hollywood “life-affirming” tropes.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Mills, who also directed Thumbsucker, is unrelated to R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills.