Film Review: Beginners

This overloaded soap opera is so obsessed with sadness that it becomes a turnoff.

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a graphic artist, perpetually unlucky in love, largely due to the damaging example shown by his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who married his mother (Mary Page Keller) although he knew deep down he was gay. Now, with Mom dead and gone, Hal decides to come out of the closet in force, taking a much younger lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic), although he himself is dying of cancer—something about which he is in total denial.

Writer-director Mike Mils is dead-set on making Beginners a quiveringly sensitive character study, but the whole thing is so overloaded with annoyingly easy pathos and misjudged whimsicality that it proves more off-putting than affecting. Oliver's closest companion is his dog, with whom he has conversations—the dog's responses are in subtitles, which alone should give you some idea of Mills' determinedly quirky approach. In an excruciating update of "meeting cute," Oliver encounters a French actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent), while he is dressed as Sigmund Freud at a costume party, except that she has laryngitis and can only communicate through written notes. This relationship, which fully challenges the withdrawn Oliver, is particularly unconvincing. Gorgeous, blonde, successful French film actresses like Anna are never alone, and would hardly show up unescorted at some random little party, but we get to hear about her pain as well, with her own unavailable father and how her life is an empty succession of film locations and posh hotel rooms. Oh, boo hoo.

McGregor widens his eyes, furrows his brow and works hard to convey melting vulnerability, but this actor's essential blandness stymies any real empathy. As ever, he’s the perfect blank canvas on which filmmakers somehow continually love to project their agendas. (As for his character's profession, Oliver's primitive sketches frankly stink, and are even less alluring depicting typically cheery Oliver-like concepts such as "The History of Sadness.")

Plummer is effortfully ingratiating, but the cluelessness and selfishness of his character are merely irritating. Plus, he’s unconvincing as a gay man, in that familiar, self-congratulatory, straining to appear fair-minded and unprejudiced way reminiscent of those unbelievable paragons Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Philadelphia. (William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman and John Hurt in The Naked Civil Servant are two rare heterosexual actors who managed to really give themselves over to playing gay.) Mills also outfits Plummer in a series of supposedly "elegant" old-queen, Ascot-accessorized ensembles, like Zachary Scott in Mildred Pierce, which have a slightly risible retro look to them.

Andy, as conceived by Mills and played by Visnjic, is such a shallow dolt that he almost comes off as a homophobic stereotype. Laurent goes in for a waifish whimsy, and her scenes with fellow lost soul McGregor have about as much romantic/sexual heat as if they were playing Peter Pan and Rima the Bird Girl. Only Keller, in flashback scenes, evinces some bracing drive and intelligent wit, playing bang-you're-dead games with the child Oliver and assuring him, however inappropriately, that life will indeed suck for him…as it has for her.