When hotshot ad and rock video directors cross over to feature movie making, the results are often underwhelming. This effort of Mike Mills is worse than that. It’s tedious indie drivel.
I hasten to add that my use of the word ‘indie’ is not in itself derogatory. I don’t buy into that indie vs mainstream stuff. Quality is my concern, not fashion and status-charged generic differentiations. Thing is, there is such a pong of self-conscious indie style about this movie – especially the writing – that it can’t go unmentioned. And substance? MIA. That’s the crucial point here.
The story is set in LA circa 2003 and centres on graphic designer Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), who at 38 has never managed to sustain a ‘romantic’ relationship and is justly a little troubled and introspective – although his angst has not delivered him much insight. Recalling some early family occasions, he announces in intimate-toned voiceover accompanied by some family snapshot visuals: “This is how the sun looked in 1983.” (Speaking of recollection, mine is not the best re the year, so some license here pls). Indeed, the sun is there somewhere, looking just like… well… the sun in a photo. A little later on we get some more flashing back, but this time it’s “This is how the sun looked in 1989” – again, delivered in breathy microphone-lovemakin’ tones. And again, the sun looks like the sun in a photo sure enough!
I suppose there’s a comment there about the eternal constants of nature contrasting with the state of flux of the human world, but shit, you’ve got to dig deep for it, and when you realise that “This is how X, Y, Z looked in year whatever” is to be a refrain throughout the movie, it’s just too irritating to make the effort.
All this chronicling and flashing back has been prompted by the death of Oliver’s father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). Unlike his son, Hal is a colourful and interesting character, having come out as gay at 75 years of age following the death of his wife. Hal’s liberation is not only sexual; his coming out opens the way for frank self-expression on the Big Stuff (you know – love, sex, relationships etc) and a deeper relationship with his son. This father-son interaction and Plummer’s performance as Hal are about the only aspects of the film that worked passably well for me.
With Hal gone, Oliver is left depressed and mourning, working through the memories of his parents and earlier family life. Will he now find his way in the wake of his father’s death, as his father did with his wife’s passing?
He starts dating mysterious French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent) and things begin to look promising (for him and the development of the movie). Unfortunately, the budding relationship fails to bloom, and it becomes evident that there’s not much to either of these characters. Anna’s initial enigmatic appeal comes to nothing. It’s not Laurent’s fault – her character is left an undeveloped kook, as if the writer didn’t know what to do with her.
Speaking of undeveloped, Oliver dispels any notion that he’s going anywhere as a character when he cuts out of the relationship for no apparent reason. Same old same old. Then he changes his mind. Or does he? Frankly, I was past caring. For all the faux-meaningful dialogue that passes between them, he’s a drip and a nothing, and Anna is not much more than exotic eye candy.
It came as no surprise to learn from this interview with Mike Mills that the content of the movie was in part autobiographical. Like Hal, Mills’ father came out at 75 after his wife’s death. There’s the kernel of a good movie in that, but Beginners is not that movie. While films should be assessed purely on their own terms, I can’t help but suspect that material from ‘real life’ has infiltrated this one much to its detriment. Perhaps the Oliver and Anna characters, who are never given the imaginative free reign that may have allowed them to develop in more interesting ways, are shackled to ‘reality’. Personal relationship dramas do not necessarily translate well to art.
Whatever, the movie falls flat on its precious, indulgent and malnourished arse. Wish I’d gotten off mine and left, rather than sitting through to the end in the vain hope that there really was something more to this than was ultimately delivered.
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