Mike Mills’ Beginners is one of those movies that I wanted to like more than I actually did. I did like it, but something about it just didn’t ring the gong—even after letting it settle for as long as I could between seeing it and writing about it—and I’m still not entirely sure why. Large chunks of the film linger in the mind, but never quite come together for me. It’s not the jumbled structure that’s at fault, and it’s not the playful cinematic digressions that are the problem. Nor is it the subtitled “talking” dog. I think there’s something basic lacking in the narrative to push it over the top.
Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a 30-something man whose life is—to put it mildly—in some disarray. A few years before the film opens, his mother, Georgia (TV actress Mary Page Keller), died. This prompted his 75-year-old father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), to come out of the closet and—with no little flamboyance—announce his gayness to the world. As the movie begins, Hal has just died, leaving Oliver—sometimes with the help of Hal’s dog— to piece together his feelings about their relationship and how it may relate to his own apparent inability to sustain a romantic involvement of his own. This becomes more crucial when Oliver attends a costume party—dressed as Freud, no less—and meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds).
The film exists in three time periods—the present, Oliver’s immediate past with his out-gay father, and the more distant past when Oliver was a child (Keegan Boos)—and it moves in and out of them with surprising ease and at just the right times. I think the problem lies in the fact that the film works better in the past than it does in the present. Even trying to meet the film half-way, I simply wasn’t as involved in Oliver’s present as I was in his past—perhaps because Oliver himself isn’t as involved in his present as he is in his past. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t get away from feeling that any film that has me wanting to get back to the dead characters is doing something wrong.
The question arises as to just why this is the case, but I haven’t an easy answer. It’s certainly not the fault of the actors—both of whom are appealing screen presences—and they might even be fine in a movie of their own (though I doubt it). The problem seems to me to be that Oliver and Anna’s story is neither as compelling, nor as interesting as the other aspects of the film. Oliver is far more intriguing in connection with Hal—not to mention the incredibly moving last encounter he has with Hal’s boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic, The Deep End), which is perhaps the best scene in the film.
Those problems to one side, I do think Beginners is a good film. It gets more right than wrong. Plummer is spectacularly good as Hal, mixing just the right hint of genuine naïveté with the altogether too over-the-top embracing of his new lifestyle. He manages to be both sweet and a little tiresome, which seems just about right, even to his inability to see that his distant—if not outright nonexistent—relationship with Oliver as a child might have some bearing on how uptight and undemonstrative adult Oliver is. “Can’t you just be happy?” he asks Oliver at one point, never pausing to realize that not only is he part of the problem, but that taking a much younger lover and having no problem being affectionate with him only makes Oliver feel that much more isolated. Moments like this make the film something I’d recommend. Rated R for language and some sexual content.