I have gone around and around with John Carney’s Begin Again — both while watching it and while trying to come to terms with it. For a while I thought it was kind of charming but annoying. Then I thought it was kind of clever but annoying. Then I thought it was annoying but pleasant. And so on. If I go back over it, it shakes out the same — charming, clever, pleasant and annoying. It is very much trying too hard to be a bigger, slicker, more expensive Once (2007) — the film on which writer-director Carney’s reputation hangs (at least internationally). Begin Again does look better, but some freshness gets lost in this elaboration, and an extra 20 minutes don’t help matters. That the barely sketched-in and largely inarticulate characters from Once have been replaced by better sketched-in, well-spoken ones played by actual movie stars, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, should be a plus. But mostly it’s a wash. For everything it brings to the proceedings, it takes something else away. That pretty much describes the whole movie.
Knightley plays Greta, a songwriter (and sometime singer), whose boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), has let his music biz success go to his head, leaving her lost and mostly alone in New York. But her old friend, Steve (Brit TV actor James Corden), takes her in, and on the night before Greta is slated to fly back to the U.K., Steve forces her onstage at the bar where he’s playing. Much against her will — and hardly to the audience’s delight — she performs a song that catches the attention of washed-up, generally drunken record producer Dan (Ruffalo). He has a vision of what the song — if properly produced — could be. All this is fine — if on the clichéd side — and it’s presented in a clever, almost literary, fashion with the film backtracking to show how both Greta and Dan ended up at this fateful encounter. Almost as good — though veering dangerously toward the cute — is the way Dan envisions her song and singing. I’m willing to let the cutesiness slide, though, because it mostly works.
It’s tempting to say that it’s after this that the film run into trouble, and while that’s not entirely wrong, it doesn’t take into account earlier signs of trouble. First of all, the whole relationship between Greta and burgeoning pop star Dave is a nonstarter. The writing is part of the problem, but the bigger problem is Adam Levine. He has no problem pulling off being a 24-karat douche, but he’s unconvincing in every other capacity. Second, the portrait of Dan as neglectful dad and crashing record producer is a grab bag of groan-worthy clichés. It’s all painted in the broadest strokes imaginable, and the upshot of his former partner (Mos Def, who has become Yasiin Bey for some mysterious reason) firing him is an obvious conclusion. As good as Ruffalo is, the scene is embarrassing.
But the bigger problems do indeed surface with the film’s major plot — Greta and Dan’s attempts at recording an album of songs using New York City as their sound studio. Even side-stepping — and I’m willing to do this — the improbability of doing this and the even greater improbability of the studio-quality results, Carney’s big theme about the redemptive and regenerative effect of music isn’t as persuasive as it might be. I’m on his side with this theme. I believe in the basics of it, but something about it doesn’t ring true, and all of it is a little too easy. It may have something to do with the fact that the songs are all pretty pleasant, but I came away unable to remember a single one. There are nice moments, yes. I liked the seemingly uptight violinist accepting a percentage of the profits deal “as long as it’s not fucking Vivaldi.” The scene where Greta and Dan listen to each other’s playlists is charming — even if it owes much to the one in Once where Marketa Irglova listens to the song she wrote the lyrics for on a Discman. At the same time, it somewhat undermines itself when the dialogue goes off on a tangent about how the music provides a soundtrack to the city. The idea is fine, but the accompanying visuals are neither related to, nor enhanced by the music. The images and the music never meet and neither one benefits from the other’s presence. Still, there’s an overall sense of freedom to the scenes, but there are also horribly contrived moments — like when Dan’s daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) turns guitar virtuoso and Cee Lo Green’s rapper-ex-machina bit. And then there’s Greta’s song ruined by Dave’s “sell out” version that feels snatched from Music and Lyrics (2007).
It’s just so much a mish-mash of good and bad — or pleasant and annoying — that it’s impossible to quite embrace. At the same time, it’s impossible to actually dislike. Carney gives the film a likably rough-edged tone and at least avoids two looming cliché pitfalls that would have been disastrous. But a lot of what keeps the film afloat are Knightley and Ruffalo. Without them, Begin Again would be unthinkable. Rated R for language.