3.5 stars. Delicate business is being transacted in this touchingly personal and altogether extraordinary film from writer-director Mike Mills. As Oliver, a conceptional artist, Ewan McGregor is a surrogate for Mills. He simply looks back at Hal’s late-blooming openness, especially at the passion and compassion that blend in Hal’s love affair with the much-younger Elliot (Goran Visnjic), and wonders why he’s never been able to find that in himself. Mills turns ‘Beginners’ into something more than a movie. It’s a collage of collected memories of his father coupled with an art project he’s developing on ‘The History of Sadness’ and a tentative reaching out to Anna (the excellent Mélanie Laurent), a French actress perhaps looking for more than Oliver can deliver. At times, Oliver seems more comfortable with Arthur, his father’s Jack Russell terrier, who speaks in witty subtitles. What may sound precious in description emerges with fervent vigor and truth onscreen. Mills deals in unforced images and sounds that exert their own freedom. Ewan McGregor goes bone-deep in a performance of shining subtlety. And a never-better Plummer is simply stupendous, refusing any call to sentiment as he shows us Hal’s resonant lunge at life. ‘Beginners’ is one from the bruised heart.
A buoyant and disarming drama about sons and fathers, death and dying, living and loving and all the ways we find ourselves starting over, hoping to finally get it right. This fresh peach of a film is plucked out of writer-director Mike Mills' past. Still, this is not a sad film, but a sincerely amusing and loving one. Oliver's artistic side reflects the filmmaker's, and as with Mills' engaging first feature, ‘Thumbsucker,’ those tendencies in turn influence the film. Mills and director of photography Kasper Tuxen mix in the drawings - and the actual act of drawing, which McGregor spent some time mastering - to build an eclectic visual palette that moves among the real, the unreal and the surreal. The filmmakers create a little magic along the way, so when the dog starts letting us know what's on his mind (the subtitles help) it somehow makes perfect sense. That sensibility fits just as perfectly with the delightful performances by McGregor, Plummer and Laurent that grace this film. Though the underlying issues are deeply philosophical ones - identity, sexual orientation, all manner of relationships and all types of love - the actors drift along like clouds, lighter than air. Plummer, in particular, seems to be having the time of his life as an old man in the throes of young love, handling it with elegant aplomb. In other hands, the empathy you feel for the characters and their crises could turn syrupy or maudlin. Instead, they become an amusing and introspective pleasure. Mills has a way of making ordinary life feel both unique and familiar, and that infuses the film with many small moments to savor. McGregor is the centerpiece throughout, an easy presence that makes room for us to accompany him on the journey. He and Laurent have a kind of quiet chemistry that works well as Oliver tries to apply his father's late-life lessons about love to his own growing feelings for Anna. The actors find ways to breathe life into the scenes without ever overwhelming them. It all works to make ‘Beginners’ continually surprising from beginning to end. The only regret is that we don't see Mills' inventive work more often.
4 stars! ‘Beginners' is endlessly original. It's rare that the trajectories of love and yearning are portrayed in all their complexity on screen. ‘Beginners’ is that uncommon movie. It captures how real people behave — often in contradictory ways — in heightened situations. At once personal and universal, it is a drama with comic moments that probes beneath emotional surfaces. What results is a disarmingly honest tale of affection, both romantic and filial. The authenticity of the characters and their stories — informed by the life of writer-director Mike Mills— draws us in, as does the powerful chemistry of the three lead performances, anchored by Ewan McGregor in his best performance to date. Christopher Plummer is pitch-perfect as the charmingly playful Hal. Laurent and McGregor are the year's most appealing screen couple, their scenes together so realistic they seem improvised. Plummer and McGregor, both doing excellent American accents, are marvelously credible as father and son. McGregor's voiceover narration works impeccably. A poignant inner monologue, it extends beyond Oliver's introspection, interspersing historical context — like the gay rights movement — amid personal ruminations. With its fragmented story of commencements and culminations, ‘Beginners’ is at once melancholy, hopeful and endearingly original.
There is all manner of love crisscrossing through ‘Beginners,’ connecting mothers and fathers, parents and children, sons and lovers, men and their dogs. The love feels heartfelt but it’s difficult loving other people (the dog has it easy), a hardship that’s evident in the happy-tearful faces, the tentative touches and searching glances that make this movie, or maybe all its yearning, so appealing. For the writer and director Mike Mills, who based this memory piece about a straight son and his dying gay father on his own life, love is a wonder even if its palpable reality largely remains elusive, a hoped-for gift locked in an adjacent room. Mr. Mills, a graphic designer turned filmmaker (his fine feature debut was ‘Thumbsucker’), has a seductive visual style. With the cinematographer Kasper Tuxen and shooting with a Red digital camera, he creates a beautiful soft palette that seems to caress the characters, occasionally interrupting the moving images with illustrations and still photographs that jump off the screen like pop-ups. In wistful tone and mood, ‘Beginners’ at times hazily evokes the films of Wong Kar-wai, including ‘Chungking Express,’ a different kind of memory piece. There’s a carefully tended fuzziness to the movie itself, like a memento mori sketched in pastel. Part of that has to do with the nature of memory, or rather those shards of Oliver’s recollections that are continually bumping up against one another as the near-past triggers remembrances of things further past, sometimes with the neatness that distinguishes a meticulously constructed screenplay rather than messy life. Even so, the movie’s attractions are undeniable, including its narrative design, which seems more complex than it is, but is engaging to piece together. And the performers are charming, particularly Ms. Laurent and Mr. Plummer, with his killer eyes (still seducing after all these years) and a voice that echoes in your ears.
Critics Pick! 4 stars. You know you’re in the hands of a superbly gifted filmmaker. The wise Jack Russell terrier whose telepathic pronouncements punctuate the action like so many Zen koans is just one of myriad pleasures in Mike Mills’s tender, sharply observed movie. Mike Mills, who wrote the script largely from events in his own life, addresses issues of history, culture, Los Angeles’s graffiti subculture and, yes, telepathic canines with deft, perceptive finesse. Fresh and funny. That lucidity extends to Mills’s bold, crisp visual style: ‘Beginners’ looks fantastic, with every scene seemingly rooted in the filmmaker’s real life, from Hal’s Neutra-designed aerie, full of exotic textiles and carefully curated objects, to the striped sweater Oliver wears like a comforting talisman. Of course, even the most gifted filmmaker needs the right men to fill the clothes, and in Plummer and McGregor, Mills has hit the jackpot. Not only do they look and behave as if they could actually be related, but each brings equal parts relish and restraint to his role, with Plummer possessing all the tremulous joie de vivre of the newly hatched, and McGregor bringing deceptively subtle dynamism to the act of simply observing the events swirling around him. Even though ‘Beginners’ entails weighty end-of-life issues, it’s kept aloft by such grace notes of pure whimsy, like when Oliver and Anna suddenly roller skate through the rococo halls of L.A.’s Biltmore Hotel. That scene possesses the elemental charm of Charlie Chaplin at his most winsome, made all the more so by actors who have similar knacks for physical performances (and great faces). ‘Beginners’ shatters lots of false dichotomies, finding joy in the gray area where even life’s most contradictory forces coexist to form a coherent whole. In mining his own life for inspiration, Mills has created an exuberant, infectious testament to the power of letting go and diving in. ‘Beginners’ may be the perfect summer movie, ideal for the season of taking plunges.
Grade: A-. Father and son Hal and Oliver are both newbies in ‘Beginners,’ Mike Mills’ beautifully shaped and shaded autobiographical drama about the opportunity to remodel one’s life, at any age, to make more room for happiness. After the death of his wife of 44 years, Hal comes out of the closet, flourishes in a loving relationship with a younger man, and—no spoiler—faces a diagnosis of terminal cancer. For his part, when Oliver meets free-spirited Anna shortly after his father’s death, the son recognizes just how much of a beginner he himself is when it comes to long-lasting romantic love. And as memories of the past mix with his learner’s-permit life in the present, Oliver’s relationship with both his late father and Anna deepen and reorder. Mills’ first film, ‘Thumbsucker,’ only hinted at the unique voice this distinctive writer-director displays in ‘Beginners.’ His approach to movie-making reflects his training as an artist and graphic designer: The movie darts, dreams, and sometimes seems to dance. The great Plummer, meanwhile, creates an inspiring, fully rounded man in late bloom, and McGregor responds with a performance to match.
Love is strange, love is wayward, love is hard, and love is scary—but without it, life is a desert. This is the truth underpinning Beginners, Mike Mills’ smart, poignant, and often hilarious exploration of the knife-sharp need we humans have for each other. Mills seamlessly weaves his semiautobiographical story, set amid the casual beauty of Southern California, as we watch its central character, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), shuttle back and forth among the present, the recent past, and the formative long-ago of childhood, searching for clues to help him put his life together. Played by Christopher Plummer with an endearing mix of wry British elegance and eager all-American naïveté, Hal informs his son that, at 75, he’s coming out as a gay man and plans to look for love while there’s still time; then he is diagnosed with cancer. That cluster bomb of revelations knocks Ollie off his timid perch and sends the movie aloft, where it remains to its excellent finish. ‘Beginners’ more than fulfills the promise of Mills’ directing debut, 2005’s enjoyably offbeat ‘Thumbsucker’, with its inspired casting of Keanu Reeves as a ‘dentist guru’ to the digitally afflicted Lou Taylor Pucci. The movie is punctuated by swift, brilliant montages of different eras, graphically depicting how even our most intimate lives are shaped—and misshaped— by cultural contexts beyond our control. Nobody gets shortchanged in this generous movie—not the audience or the characters, and certainly not the actors, whose considerable talents have never seemed better employed. Another of Mills’ best moves is letting us get to know Ollie’s mother (beautifully played by Mary Page Keller) through vivid flashbacks mostly of her relationship with the young Ollie (Keegan Boos), who is wary but enchanted by this brilliant, whimsical, secretly sad woman comforting herself with her own antic wit. By the time the openly gay Hal tells Ollie that he was always in love with his wife, we can well believe it, since we’re half in the tank for her ourselves. There are at least five kinds of love in this movie, none more moving than the awkward but unfrayed bond between father and son.