Movie Review - Beginners

Christopher Plummer (right) and
Ewan McGregor in "Beginners"
I feel like this movie was trying to be funny. It was trying to be relevant, trying to be topical, trying to be romantic, and trying to be serious. I feel like it tries to be all those things but tries too hard. I feel like it doesn't quite succeed at them.

It's the story of a 38-year-old graphic designer named Oliver who has to deal with his father's death, as he attempts a new relationship with a French actress. The wrinkle is that his father, Hal Fields, comes out as gay at the age of 75.

Through a series of flashbacks, Oliver remembers his dad's final experiences, especially those with his dad's boyfriend, Andy, who didn't know Hal was dying of cancer.

To say that this movie is odd and quirky would be giving it too much credit. It would be giving it too much because it would suggest that the movie succeeds at being odd and quirky. Like I said, it doesn't succeed. It merely tries. It tries to be odd and quirky. It tries in such overt ways that while it may have been somewhat amusing, it was mostly pretentious.

It all starts with a dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Arthur. Arthur was Hal's dog. Oliver takes Arthur home after Hal's death and immediately Oliver talks to Arthur. Arthur doesn't talk back, but subtitles appear on shots of the dog staring blankly at Oliver. They're supposedly the dog's thoughts or maybe Oliver's thoughts projected onto the dog. It garnered slight laughs, but was distracting and this movie's first step toward pretension.

The second step toward pretension is a costume party that Oliver attends. He dresses as Sigmund Freud because it's an obvious choice for a graphic designer. Of course, he has to act the role of Freud with people lying next to him on a couch spilling their problems. However, these people don't connect with him in any meaningful way. The one person with whom he does connect is the one person with laryngitis who can't talk.

Anna has laryngitis. She's an actress from New York who is in Los Angeles working on some project, but her lack of voice has put that on hold. She unlike the other partygoers can tell that Oliver is sad. Maybe Oliver is dressed as a psychologist as a subconscious attempt to deal with his own sadness. Maybe the point of his relationship with Anna is to help with that sadness.

There is the sense that like with his father, Oliver is also starting over, beginning a new chapter of his life. We get some sense of that, but it's never fleshed out or explicated like with Hal. In several moments, the movie stops to give us Hal's history as well as gay history in Los Angeles. Oliver narrates a slide show of old photos that reveal where his father came from as well as headlines in gay culture.

Unfortunately, headlines about Oliver's history and where he came from was lacking. We get some flashbacks that show Oliver's mom and how she was with her son as well as glimpses as to what she was going through. These flashbacks are somewhat interesting and humorous, but rather pointless. I suppose that maybe it's meant to be a precedent for Oliver's relationship with Anna, but besides one parallel action, there's no link between the two.

Oliver perhaps has had no serious relationship, so flashing back to his days spent with his mother is all they had. More about Oliver's past and most recent past with or without women would have been more effective. There are scenes of Oliver at work but even those feel hollow or without much context.

The context is scarce, even for Hal and Andy's relationship. I didn't except the love between these two men. I didn't understand why they were together or why they stayed together. The only reason that I could assume was that Andy who was probably a little less than half Hal's age was likely using the old man for who knows what. That didn't seem to be the case. We're supposed to believe the love affair, but I just didn't.

Christopher Plummer who plays Hal is a good actor, and it's good to see a man of his age taking on this role, but he wasn't given enough in my estimation. Goran Visnjic plays Andy and I'm not sure I appreciated his performance, which seemed to be too stereotypically gay. It could be that I simply disliked his haircut, which was a bit atrocious. Despite taking place in 2003, Visnjic's character looked as if he were plucked from the 1970s.

Current TV, the cable channel, had a special called Coming Out where an old man revealed he was gay after hiding it for about as long as Hal does. I thought of that TV special at the outset of this movie. Hal is however too happy-go-lucky, specifically in light of the fact that Hal knows he's dying of cancer. I was expecting the film to be more tragic because the TV special was. The comedy could have sprung forth better from it.

Oliver puts graffiti on walls throughotu the city, but it's hardly Banksy. It's just ironic statements. Oliver and Anna do overly cute things. Oliver carries the dog everywhere, but it wasn't enough to move me.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language and some sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.


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