As he demonstrated in his 2006 hit Once, the Irish writer-director John Carney has a touching faith in the idea that culturally and temperamentally dissimilar people can achieve oneness by making music together. That doesn’t exactly make him an outlier in the world of sappy musicals, but Carney has a knack for giving sentimental showbiz fairy-tales the texture and tang of life on the street, and for knowing when to darken the mood with notes of dissonance. He makes the case once more that a song can save your life in his charming musical drama, Begin Again, which opened at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival under the title Can a Song Save Your Life? Generic as the new name is, I’m glad he lost the old one, which sounds like a really terrible reality show with Dr. Oz and Ryan Seacrest. And the question is too rhetorical to generate suspense. If the answer is, “Uh, no, a song can’t do that,” there’s no movie.
The challenge is that the song must be authentic — or so insists the heroine, Gretta (Keira Knightley), a British singer-songwriter jilted by her longtime boyfriend and sometime collaborator, Dave (Adam Levine, of the group Maroon 5), when his solo act breaks big. On the eve of fleeing New York, she gets coerced by a scruffy fellow Brit (James Corden) into playing a song during an open-mike event at a bar, where a once-towering recording executive — an A&R man — named Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is getting stinko. Dan’s very bad day is the focus of the movie’s next section, a flashback. Gretta’s very bad year is the flashback after that. Having given their misery a context, Carney returns to the present and brings Gretta and Dan together for an artistic and emotional rebirth. They don’t just need a hit. They need to prove to the world that they still exist.
Begin Again is very funny, mostly because Ruffalo makes such an adorably rumpled drunken asshole. Swilling booze while driving through Manhattan and wincing at bad demo tapes, he reminded me of Alan Bates’s immortal misanthrope, Butley. Is it a good thing that he and Knightley’s Gretta are so mismatched, difficult to imagine in the sack with each other? Maybe so. Keep it platonic. Focus on the music. Knightley has a surprisingly sweet singing voice, and when she does that thing where she scrunches up her face and opens her mouth to show her fangs, she goes in an instant from model-gorgeous to human-goofy.
Ruffalo and Knightely aren’t the whole movie: There has to be a surrogate family to warm up their world. Gretta and Dan gather musicians (multiracial) around them and hit the streets of New York, the idea being to play each song live and outdoors and catch the spirit, the authenticity, of the city. The conceit would be more credible if the numbers didn’t sound so exactingly mixed — so processed. I liked Knightley’s solo numbers better, especially the stinging one she leaves on her ex’s voice mail (written by Gregg Alexander) with the refrain, “And you have broken every rule/ And I have loved you, like a fool.” But the most delightful number in the film comes early (too early?): A sotted (and besotted) Dan watches Gretta strum her guitar and hears the song the way he’d like it to sound. Drumsticks rise on their own power, an electric guitar and bass join in — it’s a drunkard’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Among the real musicians in the cast, Levine is very good at convincing you he’s a douche, and Cee Lo Green has an amusing scene in which he shows off his luxurious digs while swearing fealty to Dan, who discovered him. An actor by the name of Yasiin Bey (he looks uncannily like the singer Mos Def and another actor, Dante Beze) is all sleek self-containment as Dan’s chilly ex-partner. Hailee Steinfeld holds just enough back to be convincing as Dan’s disappointed teenage daughter. (It’s odd, though, that Carney is under the weirdly patriarchal impression that teen girls who dress in ultra-short shorts and skimpy tops are crying for Daddy’s intervention.) Only Catherine Keener (as Dan’s ex) deserved better than another bedraggled, aging Earth Mother; Carney can’t seem to figure out what to do with her. Of course, it’s always possible that Harvey Weinstein cut her scenes.*
Actually, I’d have backed Harvey if he’d taken a scissors to the denouement that runs over the closing credits — a fine, stick-it-to-the-Man idea that needed more time and plays like outtakes. But I know why it’s there. Carney’s specialty is inching toward clichés, backing away from them, and inching back. He’s not as pure as he thinks he is, but the footsie is very entertaining.
* Clarification: A representative from The Weinstein Company contacted me to say that there were no additional scenes with Catherine Keener's character that were were per directives from Harvey Weinstein. I guess the fault lies not in our distributor, but in our screenplay.