Mike Mills’ “Beginners” looked like the kind of movie I live to avoid. The son caring for his father who has a terminal disease, making amends with each other before time runs out; the relationship his son is in around that time, etc. That’s been the formula for an endless number of manipulative movies that bring out the cynical bastard in all of us. But there was something about this movie’s trailer that made it look like something more uniquely heartfelt and cute, and I’m not just talking about that Jack Russell terrier speaking in subtitles (thank god this is not another “Look Who’s Talking” sequel!).
Listening to Mike Mills’ interview on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross informed me that “Beginners” is largely autobiographical; although I’m sure the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The story centers on Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist with many failed relationships behind him. Upon the passing of his mother, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) announces to him that he’s gay, and soon discovers that he is suffering from terminal cancer. In the meantime, Oliver gets involved with the very free-spirited Anna (Melanie Laurent) and finds himself exhilarated by her, but frightened at the things that could easily tear their relationship apart.
“Beginners” is told in a non-linear format with the story jumping back and forth between Oliver’s time with his dad, and the time he spends with Anna. Many people find this filmmaking technique annoying and too artsy-fartsy, but it served this movie well and never felt jarring. It moves from one part of the story to another effortlessly, and Mike never condescends to his audience in filming this way. Besides, when it comes to memories like these, we don’t remember everything that happened in the order it took place.
I was actually surprised at how emotional “Beginners” is. From the trailer, it kind of looks like a light comedy bordering on becoming a dramedy. But there is a deep sadness at its core as the revelations brought about mean different things for each character. For Oliver, it makes him look back at the time he spent with mom and wonder if she was always the unhappy wife to his father. For Hal, it is a bittersweet journey embracing his true sexuality while wishing he had more time on earth to enjoy it.
The reasons for Hal coming out now never feel contrived when he explains it to his son. He makes it clear that he always loved his mother even when they both knew he was homosexual. That and he wanted the married life and the things that came with it; the house, the family, everything he couldn’t have had if people knew he was gay. Christopher Plummer delivers this speech simply and in a matter of fact way, never having to act it out for the benefit Ewan or the audience.
There’s no doubt that this is a very personal film for Mike Mills who previously made a movie I still need to see, “Thumbsucker.” While the end credits indicate that the places and characters are fictious and that any similarity to those living or dead is coincidental, it doesn’t change the fact that Mike went through the same thing with his own dad. That’s what makes “Beginners” such a good movie; it comes from an honest place and not one of simple manipulation. Its themes of love are universal and profound as relationships of all kinds need constant work to keep them strong.
This is one of the best roles Ewan McGregor has had in some time. As Oliver, he inhabits the character with a knowingness of what life has put him through, and that the things he wants the most also scare him the most. His eyes speak of a strong sadness he has trouble reconciling within himself, and you want to see him be a happier person. Ewan becomes the character right in front of us and gives a perfectly unforced performance that reminds us he’s still a much underrated actor.
I really enjoyed watching Melanie Laurent here as Oliver’s girlfriend Anna, and this is the first movie I’ve seen her in since “Inglourious Basterds.” She portrays the kind of free spirit us guys would all love to fall in love with. The chemistry she shares with Ewan is very strong, and their interactions make for some of the film’s most gleeful moments. Her demeanor though hides a dark spot in her life that is hinted at but never fully explained.
As for Christopher Plummer, he is simply magnificent as Hal. Seeing him embrace his sexuality is great fun as he makes new discoveries about life and “house music” among other things. Christopher is also heartbreaking as we find him experiencing joy just as his life is on the verge of expiring. For the last decade or so, Plummer has been playing detestable villains in movies, and it’s a favorite role of his to play. But seeing him portray Hal reminds us of what we already should know, that he’s one of the best actors working today.
But to be honest, all these great actors get completely upstaged by Cosmo who plays the Jack Russell terrier Arthur. Whether he’s with Plummer or McGregor, he’s such an adorable presence and even his eyes seem to speak words that no other dog can easily speak. This may be the best performance I’ve seen by a dog since Mike the dog tossed away his dog food in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Watching him makes you want to rush out to the nearest pet store and get your own Jack Russell terrier. Fortunately or unfortunately, my apartment building doesn’t allow pets, but I’m better off with stuffed animals anyway.
“Beginners” shows us that no matter how much experience we’ve had with relationships, we are always starting over again when it comes to a new one. It doesn’t matter what our age or sexual orientation is, relationships are an ongoing process we need to work at. We need to be open to risks and letting ourselves be vulnerable to the people we care the most about. And when all is said and done, we need to live through pain in order to experience pleasure.
* * *½ out of * * * *