Saturday, March 17, 2012

Beginners (Olympus Pictures, Parts and Labor, Northwood Productions, Focus Features, Universal, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The good movie we watched as part of our double feature last night (after the bad one, Bowanga Bowanga — see below) was Beginners, the quite charming if flawed 2010 romantic comedy that for some quirky reason relating to the Academy’s eligibility criteria competed for the Academy Awards this year with the films of 2011, and won the award for Christopher Plummer as Best Supporting Actor. It was written and directed by Mike Mills, who has 10 previous directorial credits on but most of them for shorts, documentaries or TV shows; his only previous theatrical feature was Thumbsucker from 2005, which as the title suggests is about Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci), who’s continued to suck his thumb even though he’s now a teenager already. That’s a pretty good indication of the kind of quirky humor you’ll get in Beginners, which is about Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), an alienated 38-year-old man with a bad relationship history and a potentially creative but actually frustrating job as a commercial illustrator (it’s somewhat surprising that there’s still enough demand for commercial illustrators that someone can make a living at it — especially since Oliver draws freehand instead of creating his art on a computer), who in the space of four years suffered a triple whammy in connection with his parents: first his mother died after a long struggle with cancer, then his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) came out to him as Gay, and then his father got cancer and died after a long struggle …

Through all of this Oliver is also exploring his own sexual and emotional territory with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whom he meets in one of the most bizarre meet-cutes in cinema history: he’s at a costume party he’s been brought to by his co-workers, and he’s come dressed as Siegmund Freud and is so into the role he not only looks the part, he’s steering the other guests onto a couch and doing amateur psychoanalysis on them. She’s also dressed as a man, complete with short bobbed-hair wig and a suit and tie, and when they meet she has lost her voice due to laryngitis and can only communicate with him by writing in a notepad, like Beethoven. The film plays fast and loose with the time sequence — too fast and loose for my taste: I don’t mind non-linear storytelling but I like the director to play fair and at least make it clear when as well as where we are, and sometimes the only way we have of telling when in Oliver’s life a particular scene takes place is whether or not Christopher Plummer is in it. (The film begins with Oliver cleaning up his late father’s house and throwing away his unused chemotherapy pills — I couldn’t help but wonder what his flushing all those toxic chemicals down his toilet is going to do to the aquatic creatures who encounter them later — and so the only scenes in which we see Christopher Plummer are flashbacks).

One problem with Beginners is it’s really two movies in one, and the movie about the septuagenarian suddenly stepping into the Queer world is considerably more interesting than the hetero story between Oliver and Anna. Maybe it’s because Mike Mills’ own father came out as Gay late in his life, or maybe Mills is simply better at writing characters of his own gender than the other — whatever it is, though, Anna comes off as pretty much a cipher, a rag-bag of neuroses and indicia of movie alienation thrown together in a characterization that never quite attains believability as a human being, despite Laurent’s best efforts in a role whose essence pretty much eludes her (and the audience, this member of it anyway). Had the film stayed focused on Oliver and his birth parents (we see mom in flashbacks and discover that, among other things, the only kind of music she listened to was jazz and pop from the 1920’s, mostly by African-American artists, a taste Oliver inherited from her and which Mills makes great use of on his soundtrack, filling it with excerpts from Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress recordings and discs by Gene Austin, Mamie Smith and Josephine Baker) and the traumas he went through adjusting to his mom’s death, his dad’s sexuality and his dad’s death, in that order, the film would have been much stronger and we might have had a sense that Oliver was learning from all of this and becoming someone who might have a better chance at a relationship of his own in the future. As things work out, though, there’s a “cute” reconciliation between Oliver and Anna after a whole movie in which their scenes together, even the ones in bed, show just how far apart they are and how much work they’d have to put into their relationship to bridge the gaps between them and stay together.

Oddly, there are two characters in the film who impressed me more than the much-ballyhooed leads: one was Arthur, the dog Oliver inherits from Hal (and which actually gets dialogue — sort of; we see subtitles interpreting his thoughts for us and presumably translating them from Dog to English), played by a Jack Russell breed dog named Cosmo who if the Academy gave awards for Best Performance by a Dog would have given the charming mutt in The Artist a run for his money. The other was Goran Visnjic as Andy, Hal’s late-in-life lover, and though Mills introduces his character with a wince-inducing cliché (he explains to Oliver that he was thrown out by his own father when he came out as Gay, and as a result “I’ve always been attracted to older men” — which made me lean back and think, “Oh, no, not that old stereotype again!”) he’s charismatic, charming and fully believable even though he’s put on the pounds and is no longer the tough, wiry fellow I remember from The Deep End (another Gay-themed movie!), and if anyone from this movie deserved an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor it was Visnjic, not Plummer (who probably got the award more because he’s 82 years old and he’d never received one before despite a long track record of excellent performances in roles that showcased him better than this one did — it’s not anywhere nearly as bad as Al Pacino winning for an awful performance in an awful film, Scent of a Woman, after having been passed over for all his great movies, but it’s still more a consolation Oscar than a truly deserved one, especially since Mills only gives us this character in dribs and drabs and Visnjic actually probably has more screen time than Plummer).

What saves Beginners is the very real charm of its vignettes — Hal, trying to cope with the Queer lifestyle as it is in the 2000’s (as opposed to what it was in the 1950’s when he did his dive into the closet for “respectability” after his therapist told him homosexuality was a mental illness and his wife-to-be said, “I know what you are, but I can fix that” — lines that will be wincingly familiar to any Queer who lived through the 1950’s or has read the literature from and about the period), calls Oliver from a Gay club and asks what the music they’re playing is called; Hal joins the Prime Timers group for Gay seniors and they have a movie night at which they show The Times of Harvey Milk; Andy’s worry that he won’t be allowed in the hospital room as Hal dies because he isn’t “family” (I’ve heard enough horror stories about this that I’m sure it’s real, but when John Gabrish was dying in 1989 I was allowed in the hospital virtually anywhere I wanted to go, including the intensive care unit, and more recently when I’ve had hernia surgeries no one has looked twice at the family member who was there to support me through the process and drive me home after the operation was Charles); Oliver’s professional flame-out when he’s asked to do a CD cover for a rock band called “The Sads” and instead of doing a simple illustration of the group’s members from their photos, he does an elaborate comic book on the history of sadness (which they, of course, reject); and the final reconciliation between Oliver and Anna, which takes place when she’s announced she’s returning to her place in New York (she travels around so much she hasn’t had a fixed abode in L.A., where most of this film takes place, and spends much of her life living in hotel rooms), he flies cross-country to meet her there, and when he calls her to ask her to let him in it turns out she’s still in L.A. — she never left! Beginners is a quiet, gentle comedy that will touch you without really wrenching your heartstrings; it’s also that frustrating sort of film that’s good as it stands but could easily have been even better.