© 2011 Ray Wong
It's not the first time Ewan McGregor got involved with a gay story, but this time, in Beginners, he plays a straight man. What's surprising is that his gay father is played by the usually straight-acting Christopher Plummer, who steals the movie in every scene he's in.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a struggling graphics artist whose father Hal (Christopher Plummer) just passed away. You see, Oliver wasn't particularly close to his father until after his mother (Mary Page Keller) had died, and Hal came out of the closet, at age 74, as a gay man. Hal's been gay all his life, and while he loves Georgia, his marriage is a sham. Oliver always knows that his parents are insanely unhappy with each other but he has no idea why until Hal decides he wants to live the gay lifestyle, not wanting to be just "theoretically gay."
While struggling with his stalling career and depression due to his father's passing, Oliver meets a free-spirited actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent). Despite their circumstances, Oliver is drawn to Melanie. He's had several failed relationships -- he has always been the one who pushed people away -- and it seems like Melanie is in the same boat. The odds are against them, but somehow they manage to stay together.
Ewan McGregor (I Love You Phillip Morris) has been struggling to find a niche for himself lately. After soaring a few years ago with the Star Wars franchise, McGregor has been doing smaller movies and quieter roles, and those suit him just fine. However, as Oliver, McGregor gives a joyless performance in a joyless role. It's not easy to play an introverted, quiet, sensitive, passive and depressed man. It's not McGregor's fault: he does his best and his performance is nuanced and understated, but perhaps too understated for a role that is already passive.
Christopher Plummer (The Last Station), on the other hand, gets to play the flamboyant, much more assertive and outspoken gay father. The character itself is already larger-than-life and fascinating (can you imagine someone suppressing his sexuality for 74 years and then letting it all out to live a full gay life?) and Plummer plays the role with humility, depth, sensibility, and humor. His range is amazing. I hope they won't forget this performance come Oscars time.
French actress Melanie Laurent (The Round Up) is delicate, beautiful and sweet. She has no dialogue in her first scenes with McGregor, and she delivers totally from her body language, eyes and facial expressions. She has good chemistry with McGegor, too, but their on-screen relationship is limited by the passiveness of the two characters, who despite liking each other a lot seems to have a lot of problem expressing themselves and staying together. Goran Visnjic (ER) surprises with his nuanced and humorous portrayal of Hal's much-younger boyfriend. He gives the relationship more depth and validation, and a nice juxtaposition next to Oliver and Anna's relationship. Mary Page Keller (24) is wonderful as Oliver's lonely but graceful mother who suffers silently in a loveless marriage.
Written and directed by Mike Mills, Beginners is unabashedly autobiographical. The story is based on Miller's own life: his father also came out of the closet as a gay senior. Miller, a successful graphics designer and now filmmaker, decides to make a "slice of life" film about his life with two parallel threads: one about his relationship with his gay father, especially during the last few years of Hal's life; and his relationship with Anna.
The plot thread about Hal is interesting and heartbreaking. We can't help but love and root for Hal, a man who was stuck by society and his own sense of duty and responsibilities. Hal is only able to find himself and live a full life the way he wants after his wife's death, because he doesn't want to hurt her -- but the fact is, he's hurt her all her life. In a way, Hal is selfish and misguided, but at the same time, you understand him -- he's a creature of his time. Mike Mills' characters are fully developed and wonderfully portrayed by seasoned actors such as Plummer and Visnjic.
It's only when the story focuses on the relationship between Oliver and Anna that it falters. In comparison, Oliver and Anna are dull, and their relationship unfolds in a meandering manner. There's also not much plot, so it feels like we're watching the same thing over and over again and we already know where it's heading. There's a lot of scenes where the characters just stare at each other. While it's been explained why they tend to push away people they love, it's still frustrating to see it in action. The back-and-forth is slow and not very exciting to watch.
I admire Mills for writing and telling his story in such a personal and intimate manner, and part of it is incredibly poignant, funny, and sweet. However, he's made a mistake of focusing the story on Oliver and Anna. If he had stayed on Hal, the story would have been so much better and more interesting. Despite this beginner's mistake, I'm interested in seeing what Mills will do in the future.
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos
Director: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content
Running Time: 105 minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.1 out of 10