Beginners is a bizarrely funny, sweet, sexy and quite moving movie about a depressed guy.
With his second feature writer/director and modern-day Renaissance man Mike Mills aims for the bleachers. Every now and then he connects with his material (it’s semi-autbiographical) in a way that is quite wonderful.
Mills’ premise is that we inherit more from our parents than DNA. Without realizing exactly how or why, we inherit a way of looking at life.
Beginners is about a man looking back on his parents’ marriage and finally coming to terms with the often uncomfortable emotional baggage they bequeathed him.
At the movie’s outset our protagonist, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), is packing up and shutting down the home where he he grew up and in which his late parents lived for more than 40 years.
Having just lost his father, Oliver’s mood is understandably funereal. But one of Beginners’ running jokes is that even in good times Oliver is laughably morose.
The film simultaneously unfolds in the present, in which Oliver attempts to shake his world-class melancholy via a romance with a quirky and beautiful young French woman named Anna (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent), and in the past, where our man relives key moments from his and his parents’ lives.
A tone of glum hilarity is established early on. In voiceover narration Oliver informs us that the last year was hard for him. First there was the death of his mother.
Then a revelation from his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), that he’d always been gay and was eager to make up for lost time. That bombshell was soon followed by news that the newly liberated Hal had inoperable cancer.
In one sequence typical of Beginners’ gently warped approach, Oliver says he remembers his father wearing a bright purple shirt while making his coming-out announcement. Plummer’s Hal speaks directly into the camera while wearing said purple shirt: “I don’t want to be just theoretically gay.”
But, Oliver admits, in reality Hal was wearing a ratty plaid bathrobe when he spilled the beans. And suddenly that’s the reality we’re looking at, not a sophisticated bon vivant but an unshaven old codger who just dragged himself out of bed.
Another comic twist is provided by the late Hal’s dog, a moody Jack Russell terrier that talks to Oliver. Or that Oliver imagines is talking to him. We don’t hear the pooch, but its thoughts are presented in subtitles.
When a conflicted Oliver hesitates before kissing Anna for the first time, the dog looks up desperately and announces: “Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right away.”
The film’s dramatic spine centers on Oliver’s reluctance/inability to commit wholly to another person. His fear of intimacy is explained in part by flashbacks to his boyhood where his beautiful but eccentric mother (Mary Page Keller) goes slowly nuts in what has become a sexless marriage to the closeted Hal.
Other flashbacks, this time to Hal’s last few months of homosexual freedom, are considerably more upbeat. To Oliver’s consternation Hal hits the gay bars, dresses wildly, discovers house music, dances with more abandon than is seemly for someone pushing 80 and strikes up a late-in-life love affair with the sweet, much younger (and way dumber) Andy (E.R.’s Goran Visnjic).
Beginners is not always a smooth ride. In its third act, when Oliver and Anna’s relationship enters an on-again, off-again phase fueled by their respective commitment issues (we understand his all too well, hers are largely unexplained), things bog down and threaten to grind to a halt.
But it comes roaring back with Hal’s final days. We know from the movie’s onset that this character is doomed, yet Plummer and Visnjic imbue their roles with such fully-fleshed humanity that we’re taken by surprise by the situation’s emotional heft. A hanky may be in order.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.