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Beginners

For the past few months, I’ve been seeing ads for a movie called Larry Crowne. In most of these ads, I saw a cliched romantic comedy that tried way too hard to be cute. That’s when I knew the movie probably wasn’t for me. One of these ads featured a mini-interview with writer/director/producer/star Tom Hanks, who said that this movie was absolutely nothing like so many other Hollywood rom-coms because it didn’t try to glamorize life or romance as those other films do. That’s when I mentally told this movie to go screw itself.

Larry Crowne is a totally formulaic romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts — two of the biggest film actors of their generation — in the same roles they’ve already played in so many other, better movies. Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t seen the movie and I may easily be wrong about it (though I seriously doubt that). But if I’m right, then by its very nature, the film is inherently heightened and false. You want an unglamorous, sincere and emotionally honest slice-of-modern-life film? Check out Blue Valentine. Check out Crazy Heart. Check out Rabbit Hole. Hell, go and give Garden State or maybe even Hesher a try.

Better yet, if you’re lucky enough to be near a theater still playing it, check out Beginners.

It’s hard to know where the story for tonight’s movie begins because it isn’t told in sequential order. The film itself opens with Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a 38-year-old man whose father has just passed away. Part of the film is about Oliver’s attempts to find happiness while mourning, but we’ll get to that later. Right now, let’s talk about the other part, in which we see Oliver’s dad during his final years.

Without going into too much detail, Hal (Christopher Plummer) went through his entire life — including over forty years of marriage — with the knowledge that he was gay. It isn’t until his wife dies that Hal decides he’s going to start life anew as an open homosexual. He dies of cancer four years later. We’re told as much in the first five minutes of the movie, and half of the remainder focuses on those four years of happiness and love.

Hal’s life as a gay man is a strange and beautiful paradox. On the one hand, by accepting and embracing his sexuality, Hal has found inclusion and compassion with an entire community that had been closed off to him before. He has a loving boyfriend and he’s active in plenty of gay social groups. On the other hand, so much of Hal’s happiness is only possible because he completely disregards the cancer prognosis. There are so many times in this movie when Hal is in explicit denial over his condition, his pain and his treatment. Hence the paradox: He’s happy because he’s being true to himself in some ways and lying to himself in others.

Meanwhile, Oliver is always on hand to try and care for his dad. It’s a full-time job, partly because Hal is so inconsistent in his attitude toward treatment. Since Hal doesn’t worry about the disease at all, Oliver’s stuck worrying for the both of them. He’s forced into watching his dad find happiness in a culture he wouldn’t want to understand even if he could (that’s not to say that Oliver’s a homophobe, it’s just that heterosexual people may naturally be a bit squeamish at the thought of homosexual intercourse and people are generally squeamish at the thought of their parents having sex). Far more importantly, and without even realizing it, Oliver is giving up his own chances at happiness so that Hal can find his.

So then Hal dies and Oliver is suddenly responsible for nobody’s happiness except his own. This is where Anna comes in, played by Melanie “the Academy totally ripped me off” Laurent. From start to finish, Laurent plays Anna as a character who’s charming, funny and undeniably cute. The character is so instantly endearing and Laurent’s chemistry with McGregor is so effective that I didn’t have a problem believing that they could instantly fall in love. But what really makes Anna fascinating is that she clearly comes with some emotional baggage of her own.

Even more intriguing is that though we learn about all the skeletons in Oliver’s closet, Anna’s past troubles remain almost completely unknown. We learn early on, for example, that Anna never had a mother and her dad committed suicide, yet we learn later on that one or both of her parents may indeed still be alive. Did she lie or tell the truth? Did she have a reason for doing either? We may never know. What’s also interesting is that Laurent made no attempt to hide her native French accent, which gave Anna even more mystique. Why did she come to the States? Why did she stay? How long has she been here? Hell, for all we know about her at the start, she could be an American (or Canadian) native born to a pair of French immigrants. I seriously found myself wishing that I could see this exact same movie from Anna’s point of view, I wanted to learn that much more about the character.

The bottom line is that Anna’s clearly trying to cope with her own personal demons at the same time that Oliver’s coping with his. Thus, the romance works especially well not only because they love each other, but because they deeply and truly need each other.

The film also has some comic relief in the form of Arthur, an adorable Jack Russell terrier that Oliver inherited from Hal. Arthur serves as an unlikely source of companionship for Oliver, since the dog quite audibly insists on following his new master everywhere. There are also a few amusing moments when Arthur communicates through subtitles, though it’s uncertain if these subtitles show what the dog is really thinking or if Oliver is simply putting words into the dog’s mouth. Arthur is also quite useful as a device to help keep the time periods straight: When Arthur is following Oliver around everywhere, it’s after Hal’s death. Otherwise, it’s before.

Oh, and we also see Oliver in his childhood (played by someone named Keegan Boos), mostly so we can see the relationship he had with his mom (Mary Page Keller). These segments are quite interesting, partly because of how Keller plays the part. She’s clearly unhappy in her marriage, yet her unhappiness is depicted in such a way that it might be written off as anxieties or personal quirks of some kind.

But what really enriches Oliver’s scenes with his mom (and his dad, for that matter) is in how they clearly affect Oliver in the present. It’s quite amusing and touching to see Oliver do or say something that we previously saw one of his parents do or vice versa. It’s all about the passage of time, something that the movie seems clearly focused on. There are several sequences in which this movie shows us pictures of various things in the past (the sun, the stars, who the president is, etc.) so that we can compare and contrast them to those same things in the present. The result is a visual expression of something Mark Twain is thought to have said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

At this point, I don’t think there’s really much left to say about Oliver except that Ewan McGregor does an amazing job with the character. He manages to portray the character’s uncertainty and insecurity without making the character so mopey that he becomes unlikable. The central conflict of the film is completely internal and McGregor is so much of what makes the conflict interesting to watch. That he’s given a heartfelt script to work with certainly helps, of course.

The narrative is structured in such a way that it feels natural, without being crammed into a three-act structure (something the aforementioned Garden State also did to solid effect). Additionally, the romance arc is beautifully paced and refreshingly devoid of any hackneyed antipathy at the beginning (again, Garden State). There’s really only one time when both of these things come back to bite the movie, but it’s a doozy.

Roughly 80 minutes in, the movie suddenly decides after avoiding structure so long that it needs a climax. It achieves this climax by splitting up our central romantic pair, then going through the motions of moping for 10 minutes, getting back together and then (presumably) living happily ever after. Not only is this a cliched turn in what was otherwise a very uniquely told story, but the split itself is handled horribly. Their reasons for breaking up are told entirely offscreen and they literally go from happy couple to unhappy singles in about 10 seconds. What’s more, it’s done with the implicit certainty that they’re going to get back together, so the whole thing is just a transparently lazy attempt to ratchet up the tension.

Nevertheless, that’s just one sour note in what’s otherwise a very beautiful song. Beginners is very much a work of art, focused on such issues as mourning, happiness and where love fits into both. It’s also quite moving in its contemplation of how parents and offspring can affect each other in life and in death. Wonderfully acted and beautifully written, this is definitely a movie worth checking out.

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