In the semi-autobiographical second feature by Mike Mills (of the 2005 Thumbsucker), a 38-year-old man called Oliver (Ewan McGregor) discovers his father is gay only when his mother dies after his parents have been married for 44 years. At 75, undaunted by age, Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet, leads a wild and joyous gay life for a few years, parties, is active in gay organizations, finds a young (non-monogamous) boyfriend, learns what house music is. Then he gets cancer and dies, leaving Oliver to dispose of his possessions and care for his Jack Russell terrior. In the present time, Oliver is torn between two poles. On the one hand he still lives largely in the emotionless world defined by his parents’ loving but zestless marriage. On the other hand he is pulled toward his father’s brief but giddy embrace of life and love as a late-blooming gay man. Oliver’s struggle is never really resolved, but it acquires a winsome quality that McGregor successfully embodies.
The title refers to both Hal and Oliver, but they don’t live up to it equally. While Hal has achieved a strong beginning as a life-affirming gay man, however briefly, Oliver’s beginning seems to remain very uncertain. In fact nothing much ever happens in the movie’s present time, leaving Plummer the opportunity to steal the show as his vibrant performance flows in and out of the movie in recurrent flashbacks. The movie roams around in time, often resorting to quick visual symbols to evoke decades. This is when my father grew up, it says (in Oliver’s voiceover), showing stereotypical stills of Forties and Fifties life. This is when I grew up –– and more stills flash by. At every stage, Oliver is sad. He probably was born that way, and his parents’ life made him that way, and his dad’s death leaves him that way now. But to make it even clearer, in the film he’s a graphic artist working on a “History of Sad” for a music album. He makes apparently hundreds of autobiographical sketches, proposing a fold-out insert a mile long for a CD. His album proposal is politely turned down by a group of hip-looking media people who make Hal’s gay friends look square by comparison.
The young Oliver’s emotionally deprived early life is limned through flashbacks showing him as a boy with his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who tells him her Jewish background makes her the most emotional of the three. Her chilly behavior belies this claim. She taunts people at the museum where she is an administrator, and advises the little boy (Keegan Boos) to relieve his depression by going into his bedroom and screaming. He declines.
Oliver’s life post-Hal is marked by very rare encounters with Hal’s younger boyfriend Andrew (Goran Visnjic); constant interactions with Hal’s Jack Russell terrier (who speaks to him occasionally in subtitles); and an off-and-on affair with a French movie actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent) whom he meets at a costume party where she is, I think, supposed to be Charlie Chaplin and he is costumed and coiffed as Sigmund Freud.
I have to admit that I’m more attracted to whimsical coming-of-age movies like Mills’ Thumbsucker (which I enjoyed), than to movies about gloomy 38-year-olds with late-blooming gay dads. And I must add that my heart sank when I learned that Mills is married to Miranda July, the film princess of twee, whose second directorial effort, The Future, (which opens next month) drove me up the wall with its self-indulgent peculiarities. But though Beginners is not without twee moments, of which the subtitle-talking terrier is the most obvious, this movie seems sincere. Even the subtitles didn’t bother me. They are used sparingly. Perhaps the greatest weakness is, surprisingly, Mélanie Laurent. Laurent is beautiful and young and French, and she has appeared in some good movies, including two early ones with Gaspard Ulliel, before he took to musclebound historical epics and gangster flicks. A nice, solemn little film she starred in was Philippe Lioret’s Don’t Worry, I’m Fine. She is also the cinema manager in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Her Jewishness is alluded to here as it is there. Whatever that may signify, Anna’s pantomimes nearly bring the movie to a standstill.
A bad sign: the meet-cute of Oliver and Anna. It is not only staged in costume, but with sign language, because she has laryngitis. When she does begin to speak, her communications are still limited to smiling, smirking, and giggling. It turns out Anna is a very superficial charmer, and not good at relationships either. As an actress, Anna has spent too much time in hotel rooms, which once seemed to symbolize freedom but now have become prison cells for her. She is a lost soul. So is Oliver, whose most intense relationship (linking him with J.R. Ackerley) may be with the Jack Russell terrier. As a couple, Oliver and Anna, as written, prove good not at life, but at make-believe.
Beginners as a whole suffers from this same problem. It shows not life but wistful stabs at it. Its scenes of Hal being happy and noble as a dying gay man threaten to take over the film. They offer a watered-down gay-friendliness even more diluted than that of The Kids Are All Right. They risk mawkishness to provide an emotional punch that otherwise would be lacking. But if the film is meant as a tribute to Mills’ own dad, then it is hard to digest the fact that it’s the director’s alter ego, Oliver, who is the main character, even though Oliver’s life has yet to take shape. The scenes of Oliver designing his monumental and yet flimsy “History of Sad;” the superficial mini-histories of the late 20th century made up of stock photos; the brief, presumably imaginary, conversations between Oliver and a subtitled dog; the girlfriend who communicates by fluttering her eyelids and kissing her hesitant beau, all seem merely vague, provisional gestures. They are touching, but they’re too tentative to make up a solid movie. Beginners is full of visual invention and seamless in its interweaving of past and present. Its male leads both give strong performances. But as a study of life and love it never quite seems to gets beyond square one.
Beginners premiered at Toronto in September 2010, and was featured as the opening night film of the San Francisco film festival in April 2011. Its US theatrical release began June 3, 2011; France, June 15; the UK July 22.
DIRECTOR: MIKE MILLS
WRITER: MIKE MILLS
STARS: CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER, EWAN MCGREGOR, MÉLANIE LAURENT
RUNTIME: 105 MIN