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Review: Begin Again

In 2006, director John Carney captured the hearts of North American audiences with the low-budget charmer Once. Nearly a decade later Carney has assembled an all-star cast, with his New York set Begin Again (formally titled Can a Song Save Your Life?).

Once was a small, low budget film about two nameless musicians who fall in love in Ireland. It was simple, heartwarming, and most importantly genuine. Carney himself described it as an “art-house musical”. Unfortunately, his latest film Begin Again is the exact opposite. It is a film that is at times charming, and it better be since it tries extremely hard to charm you.

Keira Knightley plays Greta, a British songwriter currently dating singer Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine). After moving to New York, Dave’s music career takes off, which is largely due to songs written by Greta, and Dave leaves her for an assistant. Greta is left betrayed and heartbroken. She is prepared to leave New York to return to London, when she runs into her old friend Steve (James Corden). Steve then convinces Greta to perform at an open mic. Greta plays her one song, and while most of the audience doesn’t appear to be listening, one man is. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) has just been fired from the record label he helped create. On another alcoholic binge he hears Greta’s song, and believes that this song can save his career, and begin one for Greta.  After much hesitation from Greta, she agrees to record a demo with Dan.

One of the most obvious issues with the plot of Begin Again is that, while Greta clearly has talent, her music just isn’t as amazing as Ruffalo’s Dan and director John Carney would like us to believe.

Where Once was a small and quiet film, Begin Again is over the top and extremely self-aware; yet it still manages to get its audience rooting for Greta and Dan.

Knightley’s performance is extremely strong, and most importantly, believable. It’s quite easy to become attached to her character right from the beginning of the film, and Carney’s clever use of flashbacks to tell her back story will have audiences become increasingly attracted to her.

While Ruffalo’s performance is excellent, it certainly isn’t treading any new ground for the actor. We’ve seen Ruffalo play this character in countless films including Thanks for Sharing and You Can Count on Me.

While Knightley and Ruffalo are great, the most convincing role in the film, comes very surprisingly from Adam Levine. This is easily due to the fact that Carney chose an actual musician to fill the role of Dave, rather than an experienced actor. Levine adds a certain nuance to the part, playing him as the unlikeable a-hole that he’s supposed to be, instead of trying to make us feel for his character.

While Begin Again, often succeeds, it’s too obvious and forced to join the ranks of Carney’s previous effort. Begin Again doesn’t allow us to naturally feel things, it tells us what to feel, and when to feel it. In the case of John Carney, maybe once was enough.

[star v=3]

Matt Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman is a Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films and actresses over the age of 50; including but not limited to: Isabelle Huppert, Meryl Streep, and Jacki Weaver.