Filmmakers, like musicians, can suffer sophomore slumps. Begin Again, writer-director John Carney’s latest film, isn’t his second film (it’s actually his sixth by most counts), but it certainly feels like it. Carney seemingly came out of nowhere eight years ago, writing and directing the ultra-low budget Once, a romantic drama centered on musicians separated by culture and circumstance from remaining together. Carney had two major advantages then, of course. He had Glen Hansard, a professional singer-songwriter-musician, and Markéta Irglová, a performer in her own right, as his co-leads. Carney’s loose, improvisatory style perfectly complemented a music-centered, shot-on-location story. Revisiting similar narrative and thematic ground with Begin Again, however, suggests Carney should have gone in an entirely different direction for his long-awaited follow-up.
When we first meet Begin Again’s ostensible protagonist, Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a disheveled music label executive with a broken marriage behind him and the end of his professional career ahead of him, he’s stumbling into a semi-rundown bar for one more drink when lo and behold, he hears the sweet, plaintive sounds of a Brit performer, Gretta (Keira Knightley), pouring her heart and soul into an open mike. He’s smitten, more professionally than personally, and attempts to convince Gretta to give him a chance to represent her. Wisely, she hesitates, but it’s not long before Carney hits the rewind button so we can witness secondhand the heartbreak that led to the open mike night. It’s as predictable and sadly, banal, as expected: A singer-songwriter who’s put her own career ambitions aside to nurture her now ex-boyfriend’s, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, passable), she’s unceremoniously dumped after he embraces the me-first rock-star lifestyle.
Begin Again jumps back in time to an early, happier scene between Gretta and Dave as they perform one of her songs. It’s not the first nor the last time music will bring couples together (and in one case, permanently apart). Dan’s attempts to sell Gretta’s potential to his business partner and longtime friend, Saul (Yasiin Bey / Mos Deef), goes nowhere, in large part due to Dan’s abysmal track record over the last decade. Dan’s alcoholism, fueled by the apparent end of his marriage to Miriam (Catherine Keener) and a strained relationship with his teenaged daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) doesn’t help either, but Saul’s rejection leads to a semi-genius idea: Recording a live album in and around (a sanitized, semi-authentic) New York City over the course of a summer with the help of Gretta’s busker friend, Steve (James Corden), student musicians, and session musicians courtesy of one of Dan’s earlier finds, Troublegum (CeeLo Green). In effect, the album becomes the equivalent of a musical travelogue and an ode to the city Dan loves and Gretta comes to appreciate.
Unfortunately, Carney repeatedly relies on time-worn tropes to push Begin Again forward, starting – and often ending – with Dan’s alcoholism (he’s a walking, talking cliché), Violet’s surliness and propensity for wearing short-shorts (turning Dan into a borderline creepy dad semi-obsessed with his daughter’s sexuality), the trials and vicissitudes of the rock-star life, and everything in between. To his credit, Carney covers the overly familiar emotional and action beats through the use (and overuse) of montages, skillfully edited and paced to keep moviegoers engaged in the performances onscreen and not the underdeveloped, underwritten story around them. It works most of the time, but it’s easy to imagine a superior, nearly wordless version of Begin Again where the clichéd story elements and character beats have been dropped and the entire film consists one long musical montage.
Also missing from Begin Again? Anything like the straightforward, heartfelt folk-inflected songs at the center of Once. Carney gives Gretta her share of folk-sounding songs, but not a single one contains a memorable lyric or catchy melody. Dave’s songs sound appropriately bland, generic, and overproduced. Gretta’s songs, however, shouldn’t, yet they do. Once also had the benefit of Hansard’s experienced singing voice. While Knightley never embarrasses herself (in fact she does better than better), her voice isn’t distinctive enough to elevate banal lyrics. In a rare misstep, Ruffalo seriously overplays his alcoholic music executive character, but the fault and responsibility for Ruffalo’s disappointing performance falls belongs on Carney for writing a nuance-free character and not giving Ruffalo better direction on set.