Beginners (2011)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on July 8, 2011 @

Boy, Beginners was a movie I was hoping and planning to like.

It had Christopher Plummer in a role that had to be tours de force and probably even Oscar worthy. It had Ewan McGregor, who is a solid talent.

And it had a dog whose thoughts appeared as subtitles.

What's not to exalt?

At the beginning of Beginners, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) tells us that most people think of a Jack Russell terrier as "cute," as though that's some kind of misconception.

For the rest of the movie, the Jack Russell terrier named Arthur proves to be damned cute.

Unfortunately, the movie around him is not cute, it's coy.

After a few minutes I thought maybe I had walked into a Sofia Coppola movie by mistake.

It's not just Daddy issues. Beginners is full of hallways and rooms, hallways and rooms. Hallways and empty rooms -- spaces that portend nothing.

And a major theme of Beginners -- perhaps the major theme -- is commitment. The pivotal character Oliver (McGregor) is unable to sustain relationships, which is a threat to his latest romance with Anna (Melanie Laurent).

I can't think of a romantic relationship I cared less about since the coy sunshine of (500) Days of Summer (2010).

Is Oliver going to fall in love with his wall or Anna? Who cares? They both are bland. The only difference is she's French. We've seen this tremulous angst many times before.

All of Oliver's hesitancy, I guess, can be traced back to the fact that his father Hal (Plummer) and mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) never embraced. His Ma flitted about their house and around a museum, and his father walked through doorways and had sex in men's rooms.

He wasn't close to his son, poor boy.

But after the mother's death, Hal admits his homosexuality and enthusiastically comes out. Even though supportive, his son is emotionally wounded.

The relationship between the father, who has terminal cancer, and son evolves. But although Hal is now the real Hal, Oliver doesn't know who the real Oliver is. And also he's a bit envious of Hal's boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic), whom his father "loved."

Christopher Plummer, a wonderful actor, gives a tender performance as Hal. Sofia Coppola used Stephen Dorff -- the substitute Ewan McGregor -- in her Somewhere (2010). Director Mike Mills uses the actual McGregor in Beginners, but he stifles him with a wandering role.

Mills, who wrote as well as directed Beginners, employs personal history as his own father came out late in life.

His screenplay is larded with such lines as this about Anna: "There used to be an empty room for her. They used to make her feel free. Now they make her feel the opposite." If you like speeches such as this, you'll probably like Beginners.

The perfume of Sofia Coppola is all over Beginners. When one realizes that Mike Mills co-founded The Directors Bureau with her brother Roman Coppola, it makes sense. Sofia is one of their clients.

Early in Beginners the Jack Russell terrier Arthur says he knows 150 words.

In Beginners, Arthur shows that limited vocabulary can be an asset.

Especially if you're cute.

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