Irish writer/director John Carney is back again for another live-performance musical. Once still holds a place in many moviegoers’ hearts — not to mention that academy award for “Falling Slowly” — so it’s only natural to try again. But Begin Again reuses many of the bones of Carney’s previous success, and they don’t sit together quite as well this time around.
Again we’ve got the musicians, but this time in New York City. Songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley) came to town from England along with her singer boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), who’s riding a tidal wave of success after one of his songs was featured in a movie. Fame (and a really hideous beard) goes to his head and he cheats; she runs to her friend Steve (James Corden) who’s also living in New York and working as a busker, just like “Guy” was in Once. The night before she heads back home, Steve drags her onstage at an open-mic night and she picks her way through a half-completed song.
In the audience is Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), drunk at the end of the worst day of his life. He started a record label long ago with his partner, Saul (Yasiin Bey), but he’s been on the skids for the last few years. His marriage has dissolved; his relationship with his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) is fractured; he hasn’t generated anything good for the label, and they’re letting him go. But as he Greta sings “A Step You Can’t Take Back”, he starts to hear something again. He wants to produce a record with her.
Of course, there’s no money. They cobble together a band anyway: a couple strings from a conservatory, just glad to play something other than Vivaldi; a pianist bored out of his skull playing for ballet practice; a couple session musicians courtesy of a rapper (CeeLo Green) who owes Dan a favor. And with no money for a studio, they resolve to record the album live, sans permits, all around the city, pretty much the way Once was filmed in Dublin.
Ruffalo is as great as ever, and Knightley has some serious singing chops to back up the acting. It’s sweet and charming enough to get you to ignore how preposterous the gimmick of recording an album like that is. But it feels lightweight, and almost disposable. It feels superficial, like a carbon copy tracing the outlines of something else that really did work. They even recycle the angle of a male-female leading pair who aren’t lined up for a romantic encounter after all. It’s probably a good thing too, since for all their obvious talent Knightley and Ruffalo just don’t have much romantic chemistry in the not-quite-a-date scenes.
But like I said, it’s pleasant enough to ignore all that, and the songs are indie-pop gold. Begin Again may be disposable fluff, but it’s fun while it lasts.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.