BEGINNERS (Dir. Mike Mills, 2011)
Mills' second feature posits itself as a more poignant piece than his dorky debut THUMBSUCKER (2007). It involves an earnest, soft spoken as usual, Ewan McGregor dealing with the death of his 75 year old father (Christopher Plummer) from cancer.
Previously Plummer came out as gay after his wife of 40 years died. Through his daily depression, McGregor has many flashbacks that tell the story of his father's dying days from the personal ad dating scene to his dying bed.
McGregor inherits his dad's dog, a Jack Russell terrier, who he talks to, and the dog answers in comic subtitles like "While I understand up to 150 words - I can't talk." Cute, huh?
McGregor works as a cartoonist or illustrator (not quite sure which) for a firm that working on album art for an indie band called The Sads. Isn't that cute too?
At a costume party with his co-workers, McGregor dressed as Sigmund Freud meets Mélanie Laurent (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) dressed as Charlie Chaplin who writes on a notepad to communicate because she has laryngitis. Got that? A major meet-cute.
Set in 2003, the film is full of a sort of slide-show framing device in which McGregor narrates over photos of people and places from previous periods in order for us to get the proper perspective. "This is what the sun looked like, the stars, this is the President" etc. Again we're drowning in cuteness.
If you haven't already guessed, this film struck me as way too cutesy.
The despair over losing a loved one, especially one whose real identity you are just beginning to process, is only touched on affectingly in the final scenes. Otherwise it's a eye-roller with little depth or narrative thrust.
Plummer is an excellent actor who puts a lot into his performance here, but it's an underwritten role. His relationship with the much younger Goran Visjnic, his first openly homosexual relationship, is thankfully not treated cheaply, but it just hangs there as a unexplored thread.
The film has unfinished thoughts as well about McGregor's career, his inability to commit to Laurent even after he asks her to move in, and his off kilter mother (Mary Page Keller) who we see in flashbacks acting all weird at home and embarrassing her son at an art gallery.
I feel somewhat Scrooge-ish in dissing this film, because I know there's an autobiographical element here (Mills' father died after coming out) and on the surface BEGINNERS is a perfectly pleasant indie movie with likable leads, a listenable soundtrack, and, yep, a lot of cuteness that some folks will think is just fine.
But to me it was cloyingly incomplete. An edgeless experience.
If Mills would flesh out his characters more and cut down on the cuteness, I would be inclined to get on board with his work since there's certainly heart there, but I just can't get on board with BEGINNERS.