By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Beginners begins at the end, when the protagonist’s father has just passed away.
But the title refers to all of us. It’s what we feel like every time we wrestle with an unexpected new relationship, revelation, or re-evaluation.
Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a 38-year-old Los Angeles graphic designer who’s coping with the fact that he has just learned that his 75-year-old widower father is gay.
Christopher Plummer is Oliver’s father, Hal, a retired museum curator who has come out of the closet late in life in hopes of making a fresh start with his love life and embraced his homosexuality by beginning a relationship with one Andy (Goran Visnjic), who is about Oliver’s age.
That’s also when Hal is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
And Melanie Laurent plays Anna, a free-spirited French actress whom Oliver would appear to be falling for (and who would appear to be soulmate material), but he fights his attraction to her because of his undermined faith in long-lasting romantic love.
Meanwhile, she also has family issues, but she uses her natural acting skills to keep her own baggage from prematurely coming down the chute.
Are these two star-crossed?
This second narrative feature by graphic-artist-turned-writer-director Mike Mills, who debuted with the intriguingly quirky Thumbsucker, is a semi-autobiographical account of what he went through with his own father. Mills tells the story from narrator Oliver’s point of view, using nonchronological flashbacks to show us Oliver’s memories as he tries to replay his parents’ union in search of its central truth both before and after his father’s passing.
Mills offers a number of inspired and idiosyncratic directorial touches. One is a truly original and memorable “meet-cute” setup, as Oliver and Anna first encounter each other at a costume party at which he is dressed as Sigmund Freud and she as Charlie Chaplin, at a time when she has laryngitis so they have to communicate silently.
The other is the use of subtitles to convey just what the Jack Russell terrier that Oliver inherits from his late father is thinking as he demonstrates his apparently telepathic gifts.
Beginners is a whimsical but emotionally authentic exploration of love, both romantic and familial, and loss, both of people and of affection. It’s also about identity crises and the ramifications of hiding things from loved ones.
Ultimately, this is an actors’ movie and the central threesome are uniformly excellent — to say nothing of likable — with easy chemistry offered by both tandems, McGregor-Plummer and McGregor-Laurent.
The versatile McGregor employs his characteristically easy-to-take light touch when it’s called for, but this time out has tenderness and gravitas on call as well.
Plummer — doing some of his best work at this stage of his already impressive career as he comes off his Oscar-nominated performance in The Last Station — gives a consummate reading of a playful, elegant dad who’s been let out of jail just as he’s run out of time, and who’s determined to live out his days as honestly as he can.
And Laurent shows us what Quentin Tarantino saw in her screen presence to cast her as the female lead in Inglourious Basterds with a terrifically charming come-hither turn that holds a surprising complication in reserve for Act III.
So we’ll embark on 3 stars out of 4 for a subtle and sensitive, funny and poignant, sad but never maudlin comedy-drama. Beginners comes from the heart of artists and performers who are anything but.