by James Killough
As snarky as I tend to be in these pages, I do have a conscience. I felt guilty about passing judgment on a film the other day without actually having seen it. What I did was a bait-and-switch review, as Baker named it, by leading with how I would never want to see Beginners, but went to see Bridesmaids instead. I said about Beginners, “It has chatty indie quirky feel-good Sundance Festival flick written all over it, which means I’m likely to hate it.”
So I dragged my conscience-laden ass to the Arclight last night and, yeah, just as I thought, I pretty much hated Beginners. If wanting to reach into my pocket, pull out my Blackberry and play World Series Poker for additional stimulus is an indication of how bored or annoyed I am, I stopped myself from reaching for it five times during the course of the film.
Having said that, if you enjoy chatty indie quirky feel-good Sundance Festival flicks, this is a decent one and you should see it. I personally like my indie fare way darker and more inventive, and preferably in Chinese, or Romanian. Not French, though. One thing I can’t bear more than a chatty indie quirky feel-good Sundance Festival flick is almost all contemporary French films. As the French themselves would say, they are tiré par les cheveux, so far-fetched as to feel like your hair is being pulled. And French farces? Don’t get me started; dear God, just shoot me. There should be a UN resolution that only English-speaking countries be allowed to make comedy. Everyone else is either too depressed, or disgruntled, or just bat-shit crazy.
I should be careful with this review because it’s pretty clear from watching Beginners and from chatting with friends and colleagues in LA that writer-director Mike Mills and I are about half a degree of separation from each other. It is odd to see a movie in the evening that takes place in houses and streets that you’ve driven past during the day, or even trails in Elysian Park you hiked a few hours earlier with Tuttle, despite a worsening chest cold. (My Mustache Belly Wrinkle is being exceedingly stubborn. I cannot rest, not even for a cold. Must exercise.)
So, yes, it’s set in LA, specifically amidst the artsy hipster crowd around Silverlake and Echo Park, from where I am currently typing, the peace of the garden surrounding me shattered by a fucking leaf blower. And this reminds me that this is the second review I’ve done this week of a film set in LA, the other one being about Mexican immigrants, the only ones licensed to use leaf blowers here, apparently.
As someone who has been constantly beaten over the head throughout his career about depending too much on characterizations to carry a film, Beginners is a lesson as to why characterizations alone can’t shoulder the burden. It is QUIRKY. Everyone in it is quirky. Even the fucking dog is quirky. They do quirky things with each other. They fall in love in quirky ways. It’s really annoying. The roller-skating scene in particular is so annoying I felt like throwing my Diet Coke at the screen, except I’d already finished it, and it was the Arclight, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Great Projection and Comfy Seats, so respect is in order.
Because I saw it at the Arclight, I doubt that a bulb was off on the projector. The film is just very poorly lit in places, deliberately so, like a five-year-old who thinks it’s really funny to keep switching off the lights. In an interview with Mike Mills on NPR about making the film, he mentioned that the the Danish cinematographer, Kasper Tuxen, was just so “boyish,” bounding all over the set, and just generally doing things that, had it been my film set, I would have sacked him on the third day for. Oh, and Kasper cried a lot, too. There are some okay moments, such as when they are taking their quirky Franco-American, Truffautian walks in the park, but otherwise the photography was jarring.
The editing is probably the most stand-out aspect, except it’s not really editing as much as it is compositing. There are myriad quick cuts to graphics and historical/family album pictures, which are intended to jazz up the piece, but it’s the intercutting between the “present” (it’s set in 2003, which already feels like a very foreign country after what we’ve been through the past couple of years), the recent past, and the protagonist’s childhood in the 70s which is extremely fluid and graceful.
Mélanie Laurent as the girlfriend and Mary Page Keller as the mother are superlative; you can tell Mills likes working with women. Indeed, women are much more fun to write for gay men, especially when the character is allowed to be flagrantly eccentric. But McGregor has become a yawn incarnate, and not even one of those satisfying yawns, which make your ears pop and foretell how snuggly bedtime is going to feel. He’s one of those yawns you don’t realize you’re making while you’re standing around waiting for something more important to happen.
Sadness pervades Beginners willfully, but it’s not a roaring, this-is-so-fucked-up-it’s-comical sadness like it is in Bridesmaids. It’s a limp, self-important relentless snivel. “Why aren’t you crying along with me, you heartless bitch?” this sadness whines. It is the performance of the True Blues, and that’s just not cinematic for me. If you don’t get that it’s about sadness, McGregor’s character is even designing the album cover for a group called The Sads, one of the many sub-threads running through this film. When that came up, I felt like an usher had run into the theater and bonked me on the head with a wiffle bat marked SAD.
Indeed, the work McGregor’s character does for The Sads, who are his fellow creatives, isn’t appreciated and is dismissed; it’s a long, fold-out storybook about the history of sadness, and it’s as cute as a as series of clever greeting cards that you would buy at an interesting stationery store, but it misses the point and just isn’t an album cover. I’d say that rejection is an allegory for the impact Beginners itself had on this fellow indie filmmaker and probably a few others, almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It should be mentioned that Beginners does touch on an important subject, which is the terror under which homosexuals lived prior to Stonewall, and the difference between them and the younger generation of today, who are almost fully integrated into American society, albeit only in safer urban environments. I should not have been as dismissive in my earlier piece about how gross it is that man comes out at seventy-five. That was puerile, and very faggy of me. That is the worthiest part of the film, and Christopher Plummer does it justice. I only wish it had been the main point of the piece, not the McGregor character, who made me feel like I’d eaten a bland reheated meal on a drizzly day in a suburban Scottish pub.