Beginners is a romance, sort of, and I thought I would love it, wanted to love it and strived to love it with every fibre of my being bar those that are currently enjoying a mini-break at Champneys — don’t worry, they are paying their own way; my fibres always do.
Beginners is a romance, sort of, and I thought I would love it, wanted to love it and strived to love it with every fibre of my being bar those that are currently enjoying a mini-break at Champneys — don’t worry, they are paying their own way; my fibres always do. I even saw all the reasons why I should love it. It stars Ewan McGregor, whom I adore. It co-stars Christopher Plummer, who must be 197 now, but just gets more and more sublime, and it features a little dog called Arthur, who speaks in subtitles which, in normal circumstances, would guarantee a direct arrow to my heart. But?
It’s OK, I suppose, and quite sweet. But I couldn’t love it for proper, probably because its characters are always more interested in themselves than we are in them, plus it’s just too self-consciously tricksy. Arthur is self-consciously tricksy. If he were my dog I would sit him down — ‘Arthur, sit’ — and say, ‘Arthur, has it ever occurred to you that you might be too self-consciously tricksy for your own good?’ Sometimes, dogs need to think about these things.
McGregor is Oliver, a 38-year-old graphic designer who lives in Los Angeles and has yet to have a meaningful or committed relationship with a woman. (I’m telling you, an available Ewan McGregor wouldn’t last long down our way, but that may just be N4 for you.) We first meet him when he is cleaning out the house of his dead father, Hal (Plummer). Hal was married to Oliver’s mother for 44 years but, at 75, decided to come out as gay. ‘I’m gay,’ we see him telling Oliver, ‘and I don’t want to be theoretically gay. I want to do something about it.’
Hal seizes the day all right. Hal goes gay clubbing and organises Gay Pride events and wears cheeky neckerchiefs and acquires a young, fun boyfriend in the form of Goran Visnjic, who also wouldn’t last long in N4. (We are quite rapacious in this part of north London, I think. We have just been given our own Nando’s but it may not be enough.) The point of Hal is to show Oliver that the past is the past, it’s never too late to start afresh and real love is always a possibility. One of this film’s problems is that it is rather psychologically obvious.
The film flits between three timeframes. There is Hal being gay and dying. There is Oliver’s childhood, recorded in flashbacks. And there is Oliver after Hal’s death when, still mourning, he meets a French actress at a fancy-dress party. (He has come as Freud, needless to say.) This girl is Anna (Mélanie Laurent) who is, I suppose, a ‘free spirit’ and a little ‘kooky’ as girls in this sort of movie so often are. They are rarely accountants, for example. They are rarely women who say, ‘No, we can’t fall in love while roller-skating through an empty shopping mall in the middle of the night. I have to be at my desk by 9am tomorrow. Don’t be silly.’
Can Oliver learn to love and trust? Arthur, who had been Hal’s Jack Russell and is now Oliver’s, thinks he better had. ‘Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now,’ say his subtitles. Arthur speaks more sense than anyone else but then, I think, dogs generally do.
OK, as written and directed by Mike Mills, there are some fine performances, most notably Plummer’s, who seems to be having the time of his life, in his cheeky neckerchiefs, dancing, kissing his lover and exuding the sort of joy which must come when you have no secrets left.
Oliver, though. Oh, Oliver. Oliver would be less if not played by McGregor, I’m sure of it. But Oliver, as a character, is just too underpowered. Oliver is sad to the bone. He witnessed his parent’s unhappy marriage. Oliver says of his relationships: ‘I don’t believe they are going to work so I make sure they don’t work.’ And Oliver’s response? He mopes. He is a terminal moper, and it is irritating. When Anna first takes him back to her hotel room, you want him to jump her, but instead he just mopes, mopes, mopes. It is Olympian moping. Plus, Mills slows it all down even further by adding almost every song from the Indie hymn-book: photo-montages, retro-graphics, joke inserts, tricksy dogs, and so on, none of which properly adds anything at all. And so, in short? Oliver tried to find love and discovered he could whereas I, alas, could not. And that’s about it. Sorry.