Beginners is a wonderfully touching and beautiful story about a man whose 75-year-old father reveals that he is gay then tragically dies a few months later. The film is a semi-autobiographical work by writer/director Mike Mills which makes it so much more heartbreaking and engaging. Mills must be a very courageous person to willingly share one of the most defining moments of his life with the world. Unfortunately, the tender and emotional story is completely corrupted by Mills’ inexplicable decision to forego a simple style of storytelling and instead choose a hipster-infused, art house tone that reeks of pretentiousness and untruth.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a sad, distant man in his late 30s who barely exists and just breezes from places to place. When his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), comes out, Oliver is shocked, but soon finds himself developing a closer relationship than he has ever had with the patriarch who was rarely present in his childhood. Hal dives head first into the gay culture of L.A. and we get a sense that this is the first time he has ever been truly happy. He begins to spend lavishly, collect friends and even starts dating a much-younger man named Andy (Goran Visnjic).
The film alternates between Oliver caring for his father as he struggles with cancer and the relationship that beginning with a peculiar French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent). Oliver and Anna meet-cute at a costume party and soon have fallen in love. Coping with his father’s recent death, though, makes a full commitment a challenge for Oliver.
With a very hushed tone of voice in his screenplay, Mills could have easily made Beginners one of the best, and most important, films of the year, but he ruins it with his strange 500 Days of Summer-esque nonlinear plot development and unnecessary blend of vintage photographs which are woven into the action. 500 Days needed to be told in that manner so that the audience could discover the truth about the couple’s relationship along with the protagonist. In Beginners, it is not only distracting but irritating, almost as if Mills is hoping for a pat on the back for his cleverness and panache.
Plummer, however, more than makes up for the director’s inability to let the story tell itself. The veteran actor is absolutely wonderful as Hal. We can feel that for the first time in his entire life that he is free to be who he is. Hal is having the time of his life and Plummer is perfect with his constant smirk and joy at every breath he takes. If Plummer is not nominated for an Academy Award this year, I will be shocked. This is easily one of the most terrific performances of the last several years.
McGregor is trying too hard not to act. Every movement, every gesture is weighed down by his constant efforts not to appear premeditated. As an actor, McGregor is typically decent, but usually errs on the side of over-acting rather than a realistic stab at a performance. On the opposite side is Laurent who can barely be caught acting and feels completely natural as the secretive and mysterious Anna.
Beginners is an important story about facing who you are, but the true heart is lost in what is a tragic example of style overshadowing substance.
This film runs 105 minutes and is rated R.
Grade: C +