John Carney's Begin Again offers more winsome (if tediously foul-mouthed) music-based uplift in the mould of the director’s overpraised Once, though decidedly glossier and with the dubious added bonus of Keira Knightley grimacing and gurning away in one of the lead roles. Knightley plays—or, in her usual manner, has a game go at playing—Greta, an English girl in New York who gets dumped by her musician boyfriend (Adam Levine, of Maroon 5, in a creditable film debut) and finds herself dragged along to an open mic night where she’s talent spotted by Dan (Mark Ruffalo) a down-on-his-luck music exec who hearspotential in her fey folky warblings. The film follows the pair as they collaborate on an album, its tracks recorded live in different locations in the city.
Carney can be insightful on music biz machinations and these aspects provide some of the more interesting elements of the picture. But Begin Again (which was called Can A Song Save Your Life? when I saw it at TIFF last year, and I’m not sure how much of an improvement the new title can be considered) is ultimately too transparent in its feel-good designs upon the audience and too clumpy in its plotting. It’s the kind of movie in which everything is on the surface, every emotional beat underlined and made obvious. Greta starts meddling in Dan’s personal life just so the pair can have a little spat but ultimately the movie is all about relationships getting repaired—lives being saved, indeed—by the healing power of song. That could work, were the featured tracks, written by the formerly-witty Gregg Alexander, not such bland affairs (just as they were in Once)—folk-influenced pop full of would-be poetic musings, and as forgettable as the film’s title. In addition, for all the wittering about artistic integrity and “authenticity” that goes on here, the movie itself feels mighty inauthentic: when the characters are in a tight spot, for example, they simply call on a beneficent multi-millionaire hip-hop star (Cee-Lo Green) to help them out.
Catherine Keener and Hailie Steinfeld go to waste as Ruffalo’s estranged wife and kid, but Ruffalo himself brings some rumpled charisma to his role and James Corden does some pleasantly relaxed funny-buddy schtick as Greta’s busker pal. The movie is undistinguished, and I found it resistible (much more so than the superficially crummier Walking on Sunshine; see below). But it probably pushes enough buttons to turn itself into a hit.