Burying a parent is one of the most gut-wrenching hardships of life, a passage I have thankfully not had to endure yet in my own life. Writer/director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) turned his own heartbreak into a subdued, life-affirming movie called Beginners. This gentle movie is comic, poignant, and frustratingly limited thanks to a miscalculation in its structure.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is reeling from the loss of his elderly father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). After the death of his wife, in his seventy-fifth year, Hal came out as being gay his whole life. And he decided to have some fun in those last years too, notably with a hunky younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic, remember him, ER fans?). We get several flashbacks with Oliver and his ailing father, who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer soon into his gay reemergence. In the present, Oliver, as a dissatisfied graphic designer, is trying to find his bearings after burying both of his parents. Hal’s dog, a Jack Russell terrier, is mourning as well, refusing to be left alone. As a result, Oliver takes the small dog with him wherever he travels, including social events. He meets Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a friend’s costume party. He’s dressed as Sigmund Freud and she mimes having laryngitis. Anna, a young actress who spends most of her life in hotels, invites him back and the two explore the possibility of a relationship. She’ll be off to another film shoot in a month, but the two become inseparable during the time they have together. Anna learns about Oliver and his complicated relationship with the complicated man he knew as his father. Oliver, and in flashback Hal, are beginners on a road to making sense of their lives.
What eventually holds Beginners back is its clipped structure. The film diverges into two main storylines, father and son (60%) and son with new love (40%). The new love stuff is presented fairly linearly, however, the father/son material is not, consisting of memories that can be triggered by objects or offhand sayings. Like (500) Days of Summer, memories are presented not in a linear fashion but through a connection of theme or tone. Rarely do we recount memories in a chronological fashion, and as such Oliver is beset by deluges of images of his father ailing at various points. But it’s like Mills took that fleeting memory approach to heart because Beginners is a slave to the altar of jump cuts. The editing, and the narrative, is constantly leaping forward; scenes rarely last longer than 30-45 seconds, making the film feel like somebody had their finger mashed against a stubborn fast forward button. As a result, the film feels hurried and unsettled, and this clipped structure mollifies the emotional impact of the movie. It’s because the romance only feels like someone’s remembrance of those burgeoning happy beginnings. The film doesn’t feel like it is in its own present; we’re in 2003 and Oliver will occasionally inform us, in High Fidelity-styled notation, of life at that moment. It feels like the entire enterprise is an assembly of past memories ping-ponging off one another. Another hurdle is that Anna and Oliver’s main conflict concerns their fear of happiness. Each had parents who wed as unhappy people, had unhappy unions, and both are fearful that they too will commit to living unhappy lives. It’s not an impossible feat, to be sure, but it does make it somewhat harder to relate to your characters when the main relationship problem is that they cannot accept happiness. While psychologically interesting in larger scope, due to the structure of Beginners, this conflict for Anna and Oliver seems petty and insufficient. The antsy story structure limits the emotional resonance of the movie. What should be a nourishing meal about the human condition ends up being a tidy snack instead.
Don’t get me wrong, Beginners is still a fairly moving film in its own right. Just the very nature of the story, dealing with the last months of an ailing parent and what to do next, is destined to hit poignant pockets of drama. Plus you have gifted actors doing fine work to wring out those tears. Mills’ tale is semi-autobiographical, which allows for several personal insights that can wound, like direct shots of honesty. Oliver narrates the steps taken after a parent’s death, including the mundane yet painful trivialities needed to convince every bill collector that their client has left the Earth. When Hal is informed that he has a spot of cancer the size of a quarter in his lung, the screen flashes to black as the doctor continues her somber diagnosis. A quarter appears. Then five nickels, finally twenty-five pennies. It’s a small little visual insert, and yet it manages to seem like a believable, personally relatable moment when delivered such thundering news. Something the size of a quarter will be responsible for your father losing his life. Five nickels. Twenty-five pennies. The scenes with father and son, coming to terms with saying goodbye, reflecting on lives lived and lives deferred, is what gives Beginners its beating heart. The clipped present-day romance plays more like a post-script attempt to forge a neat resolution after all that heavy grief.
Plummer gives a performance that is equal parts weighed with the gravity of death and the electricity of life. After his wife’s death, Hal finally has an opportunity to embrace who he has been his whole life. Mills and Plummer are delicate with how they handle the relationship between Hal and his wife (Mary Page Keller in flashback). Neither hated the other, and both did express love, but they were together in a marriage of convenience, both of them hiding who they were from preying eyes (Oliver’s mother hid that she was Jewish). Plummer’s celebration of life, the twinkling realization of accepting who you truly are, is an uplifting path for his character, and thanks to both Mills and Plummer it never feels like he’s dancing on the grave of his long-suffering wife. He’s not celebrating her death; he’s embracing who he is in the twilight of his years. He’s looking for a small amount of kindness and comfort while finally being socially recognized without fear or intimidation. Plummer is delightful during Hal’s happier moments and heart wrenching during the realities of his failing body. Plummer deftly bites into one of those juicy, Oscar-bait roles.
McGregor acts very well even if his character is kept in a very tight box of emotional expression. His character seems to sleepwalk from scene to scene; often little is said and much left to the imagination through pregnant pauses or gestures. McGregor does a fine job of balancing the different timelines of grief his character is experiencing. He’s in comic shock about his father’s newfound immersion in a gay lifestyle, he’s in mourning about the recent loss of his father, he’s in annoyance tinged with guilt about the burdens of taking care of a man that was often absent in his own life, leaving him in the care of his mother, resigned to a life of dutiful despondency, and he’s infatuated with the possibility of romantic love, a cleansing force. It’s a lot for one actor to keep straight and McGregor does an admirable job. Laurent does not fare as well. The Inglourious Basterds‘ actress is forced to rely mostly on wry smiles and her penetrating eyes. She also cocks her head to the side a lot, or a least that’s how I recall. She’s given something of a thanklessly underwritten role but she manages to be adorable from her first moment onscreen, which is her most vital acting accomplishment here. She’s supposed to be that happy ending we want Oliver to have.
Beginners is a moving, charming, and perceptive movie. If only there was more of it. The clipped, hurried jump cut-heavy structure keeps the audience at a certain distance and capping the emotional resonance. The father/son stuff is going to be easier to empathize with, both good times and bad, than two good-looking thirtysomethings afraid of being happy because their parents are screwed up. Ultimately, the film’s pretenses of a budding, quirky romance will take away from the more genuine father/son bonding late in life. You’ll get weepy at turns, maybe even swoon here and there, but the rewards are sadly too momentary, never cohesively assembling into a full-fledged narrative. Beginners has an equal number of hard truths and light moments of whimsy (the subtitled dog is a hoot), but ultimately it’s a movie that makes you wish it had left a better impression when it had the chance.
Nate’s Grade: B-