John Carney has a problem. It’s a good one to have, arguably, but a problem nonetheless. His problem is that Once, his musical romance from 2006, has cultivated a rabid cult following, winning an Academy Award, launching the musical careers of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova into the mainstream, and even spawning an incredibly successful multiple-Tony Award winning Broadway musical smash hit. There is an expectation now that comes from being the director of Once. It has some cache to it, a baseline level of interest that can drive people to the theater to see if he can recapture the magic of what people honestly probably think of more as a Swell Season movie than a John Carney movie. It has been tough getting out of that shadow, and after 2009’s little seen Zonad did not appear to be the ticket, the decision appears to have been made to return to what got him his success with Begin Again (even the film’s title sounds like a reboot), another romance about independent, free spirited musicians, this time moving the action from London to New York and amping up the cast’s star power.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a record executive who has lost his touch. Alcoholic, down on his luck and self-destructing rapidly, Dan has lost the trust and respect of his family, his coworkers and his peers. At his lowest point, he stumbles into a bar looking for one more drink during an open mic night as Greta (Keira Knightly) is pressured onto the stage to perform. Herself the underappreciated former girlfriend of a burgeoning rock star (actual rock star Adam Levine),. Greta writes songs but does not fancy herself a performer. Dan and Greta come together with a mutual love of music and a mutual history of spousal infidelity, and set out to make a record on the streets of New York, guerrilla-style, to get back and the various and sundry people who have wronged them, as well as make a great underground rock record.
It may be unfair, but the desire to compare Begin Again to Once is undeniable. Once was a film that may not have been perfect, but had an overflowing sense of authenticity to its story, its music and its performances. The biggest problem with this new film is how it has an undercurrent of artifice that creeps in early on and settles down to stay right through the credit roll. This is never more clear than during Greta’s first performance, a linchpin moment for the plot that sets the ball rolling for the second and third acts. The song she plays is decent enough, though it lacks the weight of the Hansard/Irglova pieces, but something feels off about the way Knightly looks while she sings it. Knightly is not a musician, and it shows. Her guitar work is unsteady. She supposedly sang the parts herself, but her singing voice is so different from her normal voice, and her lip syncing to the track and the emotion of her face is just a little off that it honestly feels like she is syncing to someone else’s voice. Compared to Hansard in Once, or even Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, the lack of verisimilitude in Knightly’s performance is glaring and distracting. What’s worse, the plotting of the film and the way it spins out of this fateful performance is just as fake, managing to lift every single romantic comedy cliche right out of Screenwriting 101 on the way to its supposedly grand climax. Montages abound. Meet-cutes and will-they/won’t-theys transpire. It is all staggeringly predictable and suffocatingly twee. This is just the sort of story David Wain’s They Came Together was made to parody.
Begin Again is a notable case of cognitive dissonance, as Dan and Greta are painted as these bohemian free spirits, caring only about the music and rebelling against their corporate record industry overlords. These characters cannot even fight to be taken seriously within such a rigid formula. Hansard and Irglova made the audience believe they were starving artists who only wanted to make a record and maybe fall in love in the meantime. Their performances and their songs felt genuine. In this film, it never stops feeling like Ruffalo and Knightly are on the screen playing roles. They do not come close to disappearing into their characters. It is puppet theater masquerading as a deep and heartfelt ode to the independent music scene. This is Once if it were sponsored by BMG.
It is impossible for a film this structured to work if it cannot support even the slightest bit of credulity. Even the central conflict between Dan and the record label he helped launch (led by Yasiin Bey) is a decade out of date. In the world of Youtube and Soundcloud and Band Camp, the idea that an artist would buck the system and operate without a label behind her as she starts out being some shocking alien concept does not pass the smell test. Radiohead’s In Rainbows was released seven years ago. That ship has sailed. Only one aspect of the film manages to generate trace amounts of interest. Hailee Steinfeld, the Academy Award-nominated young upstart from True Grit is one of the more believable parts of the proceedings as the troubled teen of a broken home who wants to bond with her absentee father but does not want to show the weakness of asking for it (though even her character is not safe from cliche by act three). Adam Levine is also a minor surprise in a role that calls on him to parody himself as the self-obsessed rock star boyfriend. It makes sense that in a film plagued by unbelievable characters parading around pretending to be deep that the character who calls for those exact trails works a little better than the rest.
Begin Again is a film with a lethal identity crisis, a baldly formulaic musical romance populated by characters who should, by all degrees, be sickened by themselves. Any chance at redemption or even baseline interest is sucked into this black hole of artifice until nothing is left that could ever generate real emotion. It is a story that has been seen one hundred times before, and often with much better results. The specter of Once looms so very large here; the story and the characters and the music is so similar that it would be disingenuous to avoid comparison. But the story is worse, and the characters are worse, and the music is worse. There really is no reason for this film to exist, and John Carney’s attempt to rekindle past glory could not have fallen flatter had it actively tried to.