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Begin Again | review

How To Save a Life: Carney’s Anticipated American Film a Pleasantly Loveable

John Carney Begin Again PosterThough trudging through a somewhat ungainly and slightly anachronistic set-up, John Carney’s latest, Begin Again (originally titled Can a Song Save a Life?) manages to gain a momentous degree of charm in its latter half, ending on a note that’s as satisfyingly untethered as its opening moments are rigidly formulated. Inexplicably, Carney is also able to squeeze some magic from a cast that seems staggeringly opposed to such a stunt, at least judging from a multitude of similar packaged deals in a squalid market of workmanlike indie films featuring such flora and fauna. While the music is hardly as catchy as the Academy Award winning compilations from his 2006 film, Once, a buoyant attitude sometimes fills in here, at least enough to make for an emotionally satisfying final act.

Reluctantly taking the stage of a dive bar to sing a little ditty at the insistent beckoning of her good friend, Greta (Keira Knightley) croons a lilting ode melancholy ode in front of a mostly uninterested crowd. But one member of the audience, down and out music business executive, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), is instantly enamored with Greta’s potential, and so he approaches her offering to produce her. We then backtrack for a while to witness their separate back stories that brought them to this particular bar on this particular night.

Dan has just been fired by his business partner, Saul (Mos Def), from the very label they developed together. He’s also still reeling from a bad breakup with his wife (Catherine Keener), which has created a cool distance between him and his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). Greta has been stranded in New York City after leaving England to tour with her increasingly famous boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine). They were a singer/songwriter duo, but he gets hot drawers for another woman in his entourage. On the eve of Greta’s flight home, Dan discovers her and offers a potential deal—he’ll try to get her signed with his ex-record label. Saul, however, isn’t as sold on Greta as Dan is. So Dan and Greta decide to assemble a crew and create an album, recording original tracks outside in distinct areas of New York City.

Carney would have been better served to go with an actual singing talent rather than the dubious vocal styling of Keira Knightley. While Scarlet Johansson was originally cast, an actress that has, perhaps, a modicum of musical presence, an unknown talent would have been incredibly beneficial here. That’s not to say that Knightley doesn’t eventually become a charming presence in the film, it’s just that she’s never really a believable chanteuse, and the magic of several recording sessions in the city streets never quite capture the beautiful magic they’ve been so craftily primed for.

While we’ve seen Ruffalo in ‘down on his luck’ mode plenty of times, he carries the film with a warm and engaging performance. It’s been a great year for him, especially when you compare him here to some great turns in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, and his visceral performance in Ryan Murphy’s The Normal Heart.

Several supporting players feel brightly utilized, such as Keener, and, for a change, Hailee Steinfeld. While Adam Levine’s singing talents lend credibility to his presence here, his clichéd character is pure contrivance—there’s not one original or remotely genuine exchange between Levine and Knightley.

Technically speaking, the film’s got a rather dull visual scheme, as is an arguable tendency from DP Yaron Orbach, who’s credited with other stale looking endeavors like The Ten (2002), The Joneses (2009) or The Ward (2010). This is a New York City drained of the potential magic it should be evoking. Yet, regardless of its tendency toward generics, Begin Again is laudable for its ability to remain as genuinely as it is (kind of) rational.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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