If you are looking for a traditional romance where boy meets girl and, after a bunch of mishaps, eventually gets girl, Begin Again is absolutely, positively not your movie. But if you’re looking for a deeply romantic story about collaboration and friendship with a side-dish on the consequences of fame, Begin Again is a delightful mishmash of genres even if its heroine is underwritten and the script doesn’t ultimately deliver on the initial promise of its structure.
Visiting New York City from the U.K. as her musician boyfriend Dave (a perfectly cast Adam Levine) gets his big break, Greta (the always charming Keira Knightly) winds up sleeping on her friend Steve’s (James Corden) couch when Dave has an affair with a woman at his record label. In an attempt to cheer her up, Steve drags her out to an open mic night where she sings a song about suicide by subway train and gets discovered by Dan (Mark Ruffalo, who has a peculiar gift for playing deliciously dysfunctional men), a spectacularly drunk A&R man who’s just been fired from his job at the record label he founded.
Despite her appropriately high levels of skepticism, Greta and Dan eventually embark on a musical collaboration that takes them all over New York City, recording music in alleys and on rooftops using the ambient sounds of the city. Along the way we also encounter the wife Dan is separated from (Catherine Keener as Miriam), their teen-age daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), and Troublegum (Cee Lo Green), one of Dan’s musical discoveries from before his life fell apart.
From a narrative standpoint, Greta risks being a manic pixie dream girl. But she is so aggressive about pursuing her own vision for her music — and so intent about exploring the options in her connections to both Dan and Dave — that her independence is ultimately about her and not a plot device to advance the stories of the male characters. That said, her motivations and passions outside of music are opaque, and the character is written and played in a deeply internal way. When Dave accuses her of being a mind reader when she discovers his affair, the audience is left feeling like it also needs to be a mind reader to have any real understanding of how she ticks.
But while Greta’s intellectual motivation is often unclear, her emotional connection to Dan is undeniable, especially in a long sequence where they roam New York City holding hands and listening to music on a shared iPod for hours. Just as they are about to kiss upon returning to Greta’s miserable couch in Steve’s miserable apartment, Steve pops up from behind the kitchen counter, ruining a moment the not-quite-a-couple never get back to.
Any creative who has experienced the synergy of collaboration will recognize themselves in this movie, but those who like stories about the romance of fame may well be put off both by its destructive force in the narrative and Greta’s ultimately non-mercenary ambition about her own work.
Wobbles in the script include the degree to which Dan’s alcohol abuse only is only marginally dealt with, which seems inadequate to his frequent drunk driving in the first half of the film and the brief intensity of the suicide narrative which never gets mentioned again. Additionally, the early part of the film is told non-linearly, with each character’s sob story causing the narrative to restart to show both more information and a new perspective. The device works surprisingly well until it is abandoned as the characters start to actually get their lives together.
Ultimately, Miriam and Dan get back together (a rare movie victory for long-term relationships and women over age thirty) and Greta chooses herself, her music, and her way of doing things over just being a famous musician’s girlfriend. While these choices are satisfying, and the film is joyous in its conclusions, Begin Again ultimately left me wanting more in terms of character development and confrontation.