Movie review: ‘Begin Again’

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 02, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

Begin Again

* * 

Director: John Carney

Cast: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine

Rating: R (strong language)

Run time: 104 min.

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If Once was the indie rock record no one expected to succeed, Begin Again is the hotly anticipated follow-up that can’t quite recapture its predecessor’s magic.

Intermittently charming and dragged down by a novice actor in a key role (stick to the day job, Adam Levine), this valentine to New York City and sweet, mildly naive fable about making your way in the cutthroat music business is written and directed by John Carney, revisiting some of the themes found in the Oscar-winning Once.

Begin Again, filmed in a jagged, verite fashion, stars Keira Knightley as Greta, a British singer-songwriter still smarting from a fresh split from rising star Dave Kohl (Levine).

After making an impression upon troubled A&R man Dan (Mark Ruffalo) during an open-mic night, the pair set out to record her debut album live in the streets of New York, placing her delicate folk-pop tunes — most of which are penned by Carney, along with former New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander — in a field recording context.

It’s a nifty conceit, although the actual logistics of recording Greta’s songs are given short shrift next to the domestic dramas found in Begin Again: Dan is estranged from his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), and daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), not to mention the label he co-founded with Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def), while Greta wrestles with her feelings after being dumped by Dan.

(Someday, hopefully, Levine will watch the scene of his attempt to win back Knightley’s character on a park bench and cringe at how thoroughly she out-acts him.)

Dan and Greta find some solace in the act of creating, as well as sympathy from each other — Begin Again’s dazzling centerpiece involves the pair racing around the city, sharing a set of earbuds and blasting Frank Sinatra. It’s a dizzy, hip update of a time-honored rom-com sequence, and unarguably the film’s highlight.

Sadly, Begin Again can’t sustain such euphoria — although James Corden, as Greta’s fellow ex-pat roommate Steve, comes mightily close, stealing every scene he’s in — and the cumulative effect is akin to hearing a familiar tune, played well, but still somehow feeling unsatisfying.

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Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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