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Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010)
The promising, somber start of Mike Millsí dramedy Beginners belies the overly precocious tone to follow. Death hangs in the air of the opening scenes here, as middle-aged Oliver (Ewan McGregor) packs up the personal effects of his recently deceased father, discovering a life of repressed hopes and dreams that he only recently became aware of. From this start, though, the film extends both forward and backward in time, to show how Oliverís father chose to leave this world and observe how Oliver chooses to re-enter it after an extended period of mourning. Soon we are watching as Oliverís septuagenarian father comes out of the closet and begins to live his life just as he has to contend with terminal lung cancer. This melodramatic twist makes for the filmís best material. Unlike everything else here, it is fresh, and it is given an added boost thanks to a strong performance from Christopher Plummer. Playing a man who no longer has to live a life of pretense, he exudes defiant joy from the start.
Unfortunately, much of Beginners is concerned with another set of beginners. This greater portion of the film charts the formative steps in the romantic entanglement of a duo of middle-aged hipsters. This twee material infuriates to no end, freely swapping emotional honesty with cloying artifice. When they first meet, she canít speak due to laryngitis and must write everything down in a notebook. They go on a clumsy date at an outmoded roller skating rink. His job as illustrator involves making childish doodles, only exacerbating the feel of terminal cuteness that permeates most of Beginners. The hand-wringing about their fear of emotional commitment feels like a constant interruption.
Director Mills tries to ground this material somewhat. He generally uses natural lighting and often sets his scenes in clinical locations such as hospitals and hotels. Still, this tendency is neutered by other stylistic flourishes, such as his frequent, elaborate photo montages and extended flashbacks to Oliverís childhood. Perhaps it is the conception of the Oliver character that makes Beginners ultimately feel so disjointed, though. Because of the filmís jumbled chronology, McGregor is stranded by a script that requires him to both be haunted by the lies of his childhood and emotionally open to his new romantic relationship. Oliver flits from depressed to charming and back again as the script requires, ultimately feeling less like a character than a grand contrivance. Given that Beginners relies upon him to form its emotional core, he becomes a major detriment and ultimately serves as a distraction from the highlights that surround him.