Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Absent Pater Familias: Starting Over in Beginners

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in Beginners
Christopher Plummer might be headed into Oscar territory, but the new film that gives him an award-worthy role lags miles behind the talents of its cast. The autobiographical Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, 2005), tries to cruise along on angst and a surfeit of whimsy that grows increasingly forced. That said, there’s something seductive in the tale of a son’s conflicted feelings about a long-neglectful father who has come way, way out of the closet after the death of his wife, especially when that son is played by the always remarkable Ewan McGregor.

In this instance, he’s a straight 38-year-old graphic artist named Oliver who has trouble making intimate relationships last. His loneliness has roots in childhood, of course, a situation recalled through voice-over narration and flashbacks aplenty. We see a montage of his mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller), marrying a guy she knows to be gay, although that word is not yet used to describe homosexuals back in 1955. That choice, in an effort by both of them to pass as “normal,” eventually leaves her miserable and a bit nuts. This condition is never fully explored, but her behavior is a bit beyond amusingly eccentric, especially while visiting art exhibits with young Oliver (Keegan Boos). Her husband, Hal (Plummer), is a museum director who spends less and less time at home, instead seeking clandestine, anonymous encounters with other men.

Plummer and McGregor
The elusive Hal, barely visible in sequences depicting the past, only becomes vivid to Oliver in the present, which happens to be 2003. Yet the movie is far more concerned with their troubled dynamic than with the equally fascinating downward spiral of Georgia. Boys and their disinterested dads frequently dominate American cinematic storytelling, the former yearning for attention from the distant latter. Moms, even those going slightly mad, generally are more available to their kids.

When Georgia dies at what must be about 70, Hal is free to explore his true nature. He announces this redefined gay status to a surprised Oliver and immediately immerses himself in the realm of contemporary liberation, dancing in nightclubs and joining the movement to fight homophobia. There’s also a lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic, a hunky doctor on ER), half his age and stereotypically twee. But their happiness is abbreviated. Diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, at 75 Hal’s days of “Livin’ la Vida Loca” are numbered. As Oliver takes care of him, they forge the previously missing bond – sort of – only to have it cut short by mortality.

While still in a daze of mourning, he meets his soul mate at a Halloween costume party (It’s Los Angeles, so the spot-on outfits look as if they’ve been borrowed from a Hollywood wardrobe department.)  The scene appears to detour into a brief homage to Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Oliver, decked out as Sigmund Freud, is almost instantly captivated by Anna (Melanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds), a French actress wearing vintage male clothing reminiscent of how Jeanne Moreau’s capricious Catherine briefly dresses in the 1962 New Wave classic.

Melanie Laurent, Ewan McGregor and Cosmo
But, unlike the older release, Beginners is not about a romantic triangle – unless you count Arthur (Cosmo), the adorable Jack Russell terrier inherited from Hal. Mills gives the expressive pooch an extra and probably unnecessary layer of cuteness by having him periodically “speak” through subtitles. Parenthetically, the filmmaker is married to writer-director Miranda July (the annoying Me and You and Everyone We Know, 2005), whose next project, titled The Future, includes a talking cat. Her husband’s feature, even after establishing how well the quirky Oliver and Anna mesh, repeatedly dwells on their respective bouts of depression. Dullsville. People have a right to feel bummed out but the rest of us have a right to not be bored. 

Although McGregor and Laurent give it their all, their dialogue comes across as empty. They’ve been given personality traits but no grounding in the real world; for one thing, her career is just an asterisk. Who wants to listen to a couple endlessly talking about their problems? Granted, movies with wall-to-wall emotional verbiage can be great – Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes From a Marriage, for example – but only work when the chatty characters are compelling. You may find yourself comparing the Beginners duo unfavorably to another American man and French woman who are attracted to each other, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy in Richard Linklater’s indelible Before Sunrise (1995) and its poignant sequel, Before Sunset (2004). Those conversations – about literature, philosophy, music, travels and, yes, love – have the ring of authenticity.

Most bothersome of all, however, is the fact that Mills and his onscreen surrogate can so easily forgive Hal’s selfishness. (As ever, boys really do yearn for their dads.) The affection lavished on his gay friends was denied to Oliver and Georgia. And the cowardice required to remain in a sham of a marriage for 44 years is echoed when Hal asks his son to deliver the news to boyfriend Andy that the illness is terminal. But Plummer’s beautifully nuanced performance manages to create a sympathetic portrait of a charming cad up against the Grim Reaper. And, if non-humans are suddenly allowed to qualify for the Academy Awards, Cosmo the dog would soon be walking the red carpet with him.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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