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Movie Reviews

Plugged In Rating
Content Caution
MPAA Rating
Credits
Genre
Drama, Comedy, Romance
Cast
Keira Knightley as Greta; Mark Ruffalo as Dan; Hailee Steinfeld as Violet; Catherine Keener as Miriam; Adam Levine as Dave; James Corden as Steve; Mos Def as Saul; Cee Lo Green as Himself
Director
John Carney
Distributor
The Weinstein Company
In Theaters
June 27, 2014
Reviewer
Paul Asay
Begin Again

Begin Again

Strange, isn't it, how music can affect us?

It's like soup—a broth filled with measures and beats, seasoned by guitar, piano and piccolo, then heated just so. When it doesn't work, we might spit it out. But when it does, it hits our gut like a ladleful of magic. And we can't get enough of it.

Dan has been spooning up music for most of his life. It's his job—or, it used to be before he switched to a steady diet of the blues. Once upon a time, the guy was a high-powered producer, one of the best at finding raw talent to toss in the broth, sussing out superlative performances through a brew of musicianship, arrangement and quality production.

But the industry's changed since Dan's heyday, and Dan's changed too. Oh, he still has an ear for song. But his near-perpetual drunkenness and chronic unreliability undercuts whatever talent he has. He's fired from the company he helped found. He's alienated his wife and can't relate to his teen daughter. He's dead broke. The only thing he has to look forward to is oblivion—at the bottom of a glass or elsewhere.

He staggers into a New York City dive—one of countless dingy clubs where would-be musicians plink and pluck out inane irrelevancies. He settles at the bar and asks for a drink—a double. No, a quadruple.

And then, from the stage, he hears …

… a voice like a March wind, green and cold and raw. A guitar strums in its wake, concocting a sad song seasoned with lingering, almost unwilling hope.

Dan imagines what the song could be with a bit more production. A bass. A drum. A well-placed violin and cello, maybe. He gets up and makes his way closer, mentally adding ingredients as he goes. He stares at the singer—a girl named Greta, dealing with her own measures of pain and hurt—and he knows he's found something special. Something the world would be better for hearing, just as he is better.

He approaches her as he once would've, pattering on about how important he is (was) and what an opportunity Greta will have (ha!) if she agrees to sign with him. But then he changes tactics. He talks about his fall from grace, his drunkenness, the loss of his job, his family and his self-respect.

"I was ready to kill myself until I heard your song," he says sincerely.

Music is a blend of nature, chemistry, skill and the love that brings it to be. It can soothe. Nourish. And every so often, it can pull the starving back from the brink.

Positive Elements

Begin Again is not, by any means, a family movie. But it is a movie with some meaningful messages about family.

When we first meet Dan, he's living in a near-squalid apartment away from his estranged wife (Miriam) and daughter (Violet). Miriam believes Dan has become a "pathetic loser" and berates him for ignoring Violet—a girl who desperately needs a dad.

But in the process of helping Greta piece together an album, Dan rediscovers who he is underneath all the liquor and shame. He's been granted a purpose, and through that purpose he can see more clearly what his wife and daughter need from him. He invites Violet to play on Greta's album (even though her mother warns him that she's "horrible"). And Greta befriends the girl in the process, giving her some sage advice when she notices that Violet's eyeing a guy at school: Pack up your revealing clothing and dress in a way that leaves more to the imagination.

[Spoiler Warning] Working so closely together for so long, Dan and Greta start, shall we say, getting closer. But before they go too far, they both realize that Dan belongs with his wife.

Spiritual Content

On the surface, God really doesn't have much to do with Begin Again. He's mentioned in just two scenes, each time in a rather belittling fashion. And yet there's something spiritually interesting here worth a little exploration:

When Dan is at his absolute lowest—riding the train into town to drink himself crazy—he runs into a clean-cut preacher-guy in his subway car, the sort of man who might make even Christians roll their eyes a little. He's pushing pamphlets like they're pills, and for his efforts gets pretty much ignored. "God may not be on our time," he intones, "but He's always on time." Dan, mostly mocking, takes one of the papers. "I'm gonna have a little talk with God, all right?" Dan tells the Christian as he staggers off the subway. "What if He doesn't answer?" The door closes and the train zips away before Dan hears a response.

In the club, Greta—who herself just discovered that her live-in, soon-to-be-famous boyfriend has been cheating on her—sings a heartbreaking, bitter song that includes the line, "Don't pray to God/Because He won't talk back."

Both of these characters are hurting in a very bad way. And they believe that God's ignoring them. And yet, in that very moment when both are at their worst and expressing their most profound doubts, they're strangely—miraculously, really—drawn together. Almost as if the two of them had cried out an aching psalm of lament that God heard, saving them emotionally and, in Dan's case, perhaps even literally.

I shouldn't make too much of this: Neither Dan nor Greta thanks God for this serendipitous meeting. They don't even acknowledge that He might have been involved. Indeed, His name never comes up again, and our protagonists continue to curse and drink and flirt with some really bad decisions. Still, I don't think that this spiritual "salvation" is an accident.

Sexual Content

Greta and her boyfriend, Dave, are living together. We see them kiss and cuddle. And when Dave returns from a Los Angeles business trip and plays Greta a love song he wrote out there, she realizes it's not about her. She slaps him, and he admits to an affair. Dan also talks about how infidelity scarred his life.

Speaking of such things, Dan and Greta fall for each other, and it seems that they'll consummate their attraction. It never happens, though. They dance together and hold hands, and that's as far as things go.

Violet, who's all of 14 or 15, dresses provocatively, letting lots of skin peek out around her sexy outfits. Her mother seems unable to convince her to dress more appropriately, and Dan tries to get her to change too. "Stop dressing like you're totally easy," he tells her. It's Greta who eventually convinces her that the way to attract the boys she actually likes is to dress more conservatively. And when Dan tells Greta that her beauty is an asset, the singer says, "I think music is about ears, not eyes." Meanwhile, Violet jokes to her dad that she spends her money on condoms, and Mom talks about how the only kids the girl talks with in school are older boys who want to have sex with her.

We see women in bikinis at a superstar singer's house. Dan strips to his underwear. People talk casually about sex and sexual body parts. Stopping by for a quick shower, Dan asks Miriam if she'd like to join him. (She seems to consider it).

Violent Content

Dan gets punched in the nose for not paying his bar tab.

Crude or Profane Language

More than 50 f-words and about 35 s-words. Other (frequent) curses include "a‑‑," "p‑‑‑," "pr‑‑k" and "bloody." God's name is misused at least 15 times, twice with "d‑‑n," and Jesus' name is abused once or twice.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Dan has a serious alcohol problem. We see him guzzle beer, whiskey and some other kind of booze straight out of a bottle hidden in a paper bag. He's intoxicated every minute of the first day we see him (swallowing several breath mints to try to hide the fact from his daughter), and we learn that he sold his two Grammys to buy more liquor. He's completely hammered when he meets Greta, and he tells her that this state of inebriation is critical to his creative process. "That's when the magic happens," he says. Dan takes his daughter to a bar, too, and when he can't pay for his drinks, he tries to borrow cash from the kid.

He continues to drink throughout the film, including while on the job. But he's definitely trying to taper things off as things go along, and when Greta offers him champagne at the album's completion party, he turns it down, opting for a soft drink instead. (He grimaces when he drinks that, wondering aloud how anyone ever tolerates the stuff.)

Others also drink wine, beer, champagne, etc. Several people smoke. Dan uses cigarettes to bribe children to sing on a track.

Other Negative Elements

Violet is disrespectful to both her parents. The folks around her can be smarmy and dismissive. Dan tries to steal a painting from his former business, claiming he originally paid for it.

Conclusion

Begin Again is a mostly secular redemption story, with some really easy to miss nods to a greater Writer. When we first meet them, Dan and Greta are broken beyond all hope of repair. But they, and their music, save each other. And while the film starts off looking pretty bleak, it transforms into a sweet, strangely compelling story about the power of family, love, artistic integrity and beautiful music (taking a few swipes at the music industry for good measure). The acting is pretty good. The songs are killer.

And it's a cryin' shame there's so much profanity here.

This is the sort of film I'd love to love. It's a movie I'd like to recommend to friends. But when I start developing a bad case of writer's cramp from checking off so many profanities, I know I'll never be able to do so.

There are other problems too, of course. Violet's penchant for showing skin. Dan's crippling drinking problem. But both of those are critical elements in the redemptive story that follows and neither, it can be argued, is explicitly rendered beyond reasonable expectation. By contrast, the cursing is completely unnecessary. It's easy to communicate great joy and pain without the use of a single f-word, much less 50. As such, Begin Again feels like a missed opportunity—a film I kinda wish they'd make again.

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