Filmmaking for "Beginners"

Writer-director Mike Mill's first foray into feature-length films is a flop.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 15, 2011

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Daddy issues: Ewan McGregor (right) shaves his 75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer), who has just come out as a gay man.

The strangely skittish, obviously heartfelt sophomore effort from writer-director Mike Mills begins with a fascinating premise: Upon the death of his wife, at 75 years of age, a stuffy museum curator played by Christopher Plummer abruptly tells his son that he’s actually been gay this entire time, and thus spends the last four years of his life living it up, “exploring this side of myself I have never allowed.”

Oh, what a movie that might have been.

There are still fragments of it, albeit stranded on the sidelines. Freewheeling in a discursive, fractured narrative structure through a slippery timeline with more than a passing nod to the French New Wave, Mills’ Beginners offers ever-so-brief, tantalizing glimpses of the past. Unfortunately, we mostly remain mired in the present, with Ewan McGregor as the desperately depressed young son, disposing of his now-dead father’s personal effects in a big empty house, filing for death certificates, adopting the Old Man’s cloyingly cute Jack Russell terrier and generally ruining the party.

And what a party it seemed to be, judging from these brief glimpses.

I will confess, I have an almost absurd affection for elderly gays. Granted, it’s inherently sad and awful that they’ve had to spend most of their lives strait jacketed by backward societal codes, browbeaten and closeted by pressures hetero folks like me could never imagine. But what a joy it has been (at least in this part of the country) to watch America finally start to get it together.

Christopher Plummer’s Hal is an extraordinary creation. After decades denying who he really was, suddenly this sly old fox is liberated and randy, but in a matter-of-fact fashion. (He’s drier than a martini and opens his shirts an extra couple of buttons.) Ever since his weird half-Nazi stint in The Sound Of Music , Plummer has always played both sides of the table, his conspiratorial eyes hinting at something larger than the dull film going on around him. Plummer is the only reason to see Beginners , and brings with him a disruptive energy that I worry makes Mills extremely uncomfortable.

The most interesting character is banished to the sidelines, almost immediately.

If you waste enough time reading movie magazines and websites like I do, you’ll already know that Mills—a very talented music video director who is just recently making a bleated stab at feature film—based this picture upon his own life. And unfortunately he wrote it himself, so instead of the fascinating story about a 75-year-old man finally embracing his gayness, we’ve got a lot of movie to slog through in which McGregor plays a sad-sack stand-in for the director himself who drives a fancy BMW, writes twee cartoons about “the history of sadness” and generally just mopes around because three years later, he still can’t get over the fact that his father was queer and his mother knew it the whole time.

Cut in quick, often very amusing bursts of interrupted scenes that never quite finish, Beginners apes the energy and discursive style of Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player . Problem is, it never quite goes anywhere.

Oh, but I guess it’s a love story. McGregor, dressed as Freud for an annoying, middle-aged hipster Hollywood Halloween party, meets Mélanie Laurnet’s gamine goddess. As if we weren’t already twee enough, he’s wearing a fake Freud beard and she’s suffering from laryngitis, scribbling her side of the banter on a pad of paper and gazing into the camera with those giant doe eyes. Their relationship plays out like a bad parody of a Charlie Kaufman movie, both of them trumpeting affectations until you wonder if there’s even anything left underneath the hipster posturing.

Still, the movie surprises sometimes. It dwells on vast empty spaces. Offhand flashback interludes (time in this movie is nothing if not fluid) with McGregor’s departed mother hiding the fact that she is half-Jewish in America, way back then. Revisited in stray moments with one eye on the pathos, her secret shame rivals her husband’s, and maybe that’s what made them such a good match way back then? Everybody used to have something to hide?

And in the end, all this cultural history and fascinating cross-cultural minutiae all boils down to the handsome Jedi wondering if the hot French chick wants to have sex with him?

I think Mills needs to look up from the lint that’s collected in his navel. There’s not a movie there.

Grade: C
Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Mélanie Laurent

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