Multi-hyphenate sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton sounds like a bizarre misfire, a hip-hop-infused musical about one of the lesser known Founding Fathers, and yet not only does it succeed so magnificently, so transcendentally, it’s one of those rare artistic pinnacles that lives up to its own momentous hype. This is one of the crowning artistic achievements of the twenty-first century. I’m exceedingly grateful for a filmed version of the vaulted stage experience, with the original cast, that allows me that front-row view my bank account never would afford. This is going to be a film review of what is, essentially, a live theatrical performance, but really this written review is going to be a celebration of Hamilton and what I consider to be so phenomenal.
In 1776, Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) is an immigrant looking to make his name in the American colonies and the looming war with Britain for independence from King George III (Jonathan Groff). He meets and befriends Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), an ambitious upstart who seems fatefully linked with Hamilton through the decades. Hamilton falls in love and marries Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) but also has a close relationship with her older sister, Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who keeps her real feelings at bay to protect her sister. Eager to get into the action, Hamilton accepts a position as George Washington’s (Chris Jackson) right-hand man as the battle comes to New York and the colonists do the unthinkable and defeat England as we conclude the musical’s first act. “You’ll be back,” King George retorts.
Next comes the tricky part of building a functioning country in the aftermath. Hamilton is appointed to be Secretary of the Treasury by newly elected President Washington, but his federalist principles are fought against by some pretty big names in the cabinet, like James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Both are wary of a centralized government and prefer more power to be held by the states. The Founding Fathers jostle for ideological supremacy and Hamilton gifts his opponents with the burgeoning nation’s first political sex scandal with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Aaron Burr rises in local and national politics but sees Hamilton as a constant thorn in his side. With the presidential election so close in 1800, Hamilton’s endorsement of Jefferson over Burr is the final straw, and Burr demands satisfaction in a duel against Hamilton that will prove tragic.
For fans of musical theater, Hamilton is a two-hour-and-forty-minute joyously exuberant celebration of a bold artistic vision, the electricity of live theater, and broadening American history in a manner that makes it far more accessible, relevant, and humane for a modern audience. The very nature of having minority actors portraying the Founding Fathers and their famous wives is part of Miranda’s appeal that he wanted to tell the story of America with the America of today. Ordinarily, African-Americans would never get an opportunity to play Washington or Jefferson, or a Chinese-American woman playing the role of Eliza Hamilton, and there is definite power in representation, in seeing these different faces playing these historical figures. The deliberate color-blind casting makes America’s history feel more inclusive. It’s such a simple act, opening the ethnicity of historical roles, but it produces a beautiful result and provides even more cross-textual commentary, like slave-owning presidents played by black thespians.
Another miraculous effort by Miranda is his ability to generously humanize many of the characters, including the man who eventually murders Hamilton himself. Very often when we talk about the Founding Fathers and other Great Figures of History from oh so long ago, they take on a mythic quality and seem less human, less flawed, and less relatable. They seem practically superhuman, absent our doubts and desires. Miranda’s portrayal of the men and women of America’s founding does the opposite and makes these people feel relatable, flawed, and human yet again.
This includes Hamilton as well. He’s obsessed with his sense of legacy, has a pretty healthy ego that gets him into trouble, and might have been having an emotional affair with his sister-in-law, never mind an actual affair with Maria Reynolds. He’s so concerned about his “good name” and rumor of impropriety (he was accused of embezzling government money to pay for Ms. Reynolds’ husband’s extortion) that he literally confessed to his marital misdeeds and published it. Hamilton is consumed with writing his ideas (“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”) and an impending early death, something he amazingly escaped during a hurricane in the Caribbean that destroyed his village as well as his mother’s fatal illness. He was so eager to get into the heat of war that Washington had to sit him down to persuade him that dying as a martyr isn’t as glamorous as living and seeing through your ideals. Hamilton’s death at the hands of Burr is likely the most widely known fact about both duelists, but the musical brings each to glorious and troubled life with unerring compassion without excusing their real failings.
Burr serves as the narrator of our near three hours, setting the stage for Hamilton’s story with his own regrets and jealousies framing his recounting. He’s a complex character worthy of his own biopic, an orphan who finished college in two years, had an affair with the wife or a British officer, lost her at sea, and championed retail politics centuries before it was the norm. His personal philosophy was one of caution, diametrically opposed to Hamilton jumping after whatever he wanted no matter the consequences. Burr longs for being near the real center of power, and his showstopping number “The Room Where It Happens” is an ode to his desire. He begins as a friend and ally of Hamilton, then political rival, and finally as a mortal enemy. He’s too calculated with his personal beliefs, never wanting to be too challenging and at risk, which is an embodiment of his social-climbing ambition as well as his callow decision-making. To Burr, avoiding risk and not accruing enemies is simply smart business. The musical does an excellent job of humanizing Burr (“Now I’m the villain in your history book”) and offering a perspective in opposition to Hamilton but not without its own measurable merits.
The domestic side of Hamilton could be its own movie to itself. The relationship between Alexander, Eliza, and Angelica is complicated to say the least. Angelica was the elder sister and in her stellar song “Satisfied” she details the social pressures of being in that position, being expected to marry into a desirable match that will see the family name and fortune to prosper. Feeling initially unsure about Hamilton’s intentions, she introduces him to her sister Eliza instead, and it’s a choice that she feels conflicted about ever since. Angelica dearly loves her sister (“I love my sister more than anything in this life/ I will choose her happiness over mine every time”) but cannot help but still feel a yearning for her brother-in-law. However, when the Reynolds scandal comes to light, she will defend her sister to her dying breath. That sisterly deference makes Angelica such a fascinating figure, and it certainly makes the Hamilton marriage more intriguing and roiling with pent-up desires. Eliza sings about removing herself from the narrative in “Burn” and how her husband has “forfeited the rights to my heart.” She’s been trying to impress upon her husband to be happy in the moment (“Look around, look around/ How lucky we are to be alive right now”) and enjoy his accomplishments rather than looking ahead. Her eventual forgiveness of Hamilton is one of the most emotional moments of the show that causes me to tear up. And she serves as a final testament to Hamilton’s legacy during the final number, after his death, and fills in the gaps of history by asserting her own agency back into the observed “narrative.”
I’ve gone over 1300 words, dear reader, and I haven’t even talked in depth about the music, so allow me to say that Hamilton as a musical is just about music perfection. Hip-hop is such a densely wordy platform that allows so much information to be imparted at lightning speed, which means that lyrically these songs are jam-packed with clever asides, allusions, and rhyming recitations of history. The songs are instantly quotable and filled with deep consideration from witticisms to also important dramatic themes and perspectives. I was amazed at Miranda’s composition skills in particular how he’s able to weave and build off character leitmotifs. It’s brilliant how something like Hamilton’s declarative early song “Not throwing away my shot” about his ambitions can come back during his duel with Burr where he raises his pistol in the air, away from Burr, and literally throws away his shot. Or how the beat of a song can imitate a failing heartbeat in a fractious moment of tragedy. Or how King George’s self-involved songs are fashioned to be like 1960s British invasion pop ditties. Or how cabinet arguments become riotous battle raps between Jefferson and Hamilton. Or how the same actors who played Hamilton’s wartime buddies in Act 1 are playing his political rivals in Act 2 (“Have you forgotten Lafayette?” he asks of Jefferson, the same man who portrayed Lafayette). There are layers and layers to the compositions here and the music is remarkably assured; almost every song is a certified earworm, and it’s an entirely sung musical. Every person will have their favorites, and for me they include “Satisfied,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “History Has Its Eyes on You,” “Dear Theodosia,” “One Last Time,” and the moving finisher, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Even if you don’t like rap music, Miranda’s offerings are so catchy, so accomplished, and so bursting with excitement, that it’s near impossible to resist.
This movie was filmed in 2016 from the original Broadway cast, many of whom earned Tony awards for their sensational work (Diggs, Goldsberry, and Odom Jr.). Everyone is truly excellent but my favorite performer, by far, is Diggs (Blindspotting). He gets to spit lightning-fast rhymes in a French accent as Lafayette, and his portrayal of Jefferson as a dandy in the style of Andre 3000 from Outkast is enormously entertaining. His “What Did I Miss?” introductory number is a perfect impression for Jefferson’s arrival onto the stage. Diggs’ is so charming even when he’s being a scoundrel trying to plot the doom of Hamilton. His battle raps with Miranda are a highlight and Diggs also seems to get the most tricky lyrical arrangements because of his peerless skills at maintaining flow and diction (“I’m in the cabinet, I am complicit in/ Watching him grabbin’ at power and kiss it/ If Washington isn’t gon’ listen/ To disciplined dissidents, this is the difference./ This kid is out!”). There’s a reason Diggs has become the other breakout star of the show.
Soo (The Code) breaks my heart with her Act 2 solo numbers and then mends it back as she reasserts herself on “Who Live, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) has such a fire to her. Groff (Mindhunter) is hilarious as King George, though his singing involves a lot of literal spitting. Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) is exceptional as the titular character who comes from nothing and through the power of his ideas creates America’s financial institutions that are still standing to this day. But it’s his personal relationships that better define him in the play. The fatherly relationship he has with Washington is affectionate (“One Last Time” has an extra poignancy knowing Washington died shortly after leaving office) and his hopes for his newborn son (“You’ll Blow Us All Away”) speak to a larger truth about parenting that also links up with the foundation of a nation in infancy. There’s also his complicated love divided between Eliza and her sister. Miranda has such a natural charm and swagger and earnestness that seeps into his performance and every performer.
So is there anything about this movie-wise to separate it from a bootleg of the show? Director Thomas Kail (also the director of the musical) does make smart use of when to go tighter on his actors, to zero in on the emotions and expressiveness, and when to go wider for best impact. The stage is designed like a bullseye with a rotating circle, which can play up the dramatic confrontations between foes, especially the duels. I was impressed at points where the movement of the stage would be perfectly timed with camera focus and edits, allowing other characters to loom over the shoulder, or pop into focus, giving the production a greater sense of filmed visuals. However, this is really a filmed version of the stage show, so as a movie, it’s only going to do so much with those trappings. The unreality of theater has to be accepted but the movie version does a great job of maintaining the intimacy of the shared theatrical experience. It’s even nice to hear the applause after the musical numbers or some of the laugh lines hit home.
By this time, you’ve likely heard about the Broadway-smashing Hamilton success story of Miranda and his crew but do yourself a real favor and watch the movie with the OG cast. Yes, there are historical shortcuts taken for dramatic license and not everything you see on stage will be one hundred percent accurate with the long record of history, but it all clicks for the greater storytelling aims. Some might be uncomfortable with the re-visioning of the Founding Fathers, either by the open-ethnicity casting or glossing over their slave-owning faults, but Miranda’s larger goal of making history reflective of the people who currently live today is admirable. In short, unless you have the kind of money to blow on a front-row ticket, enjoy the Hamilton movie experience until Miranda eventually wrangles his artistic milestone into a more movie-movie version.
Movie Grade: A
Show Grade: A+
Nobody quite expected the second act that Liam Neeson is currently having. Before 2009, he was seen a dramatic leading man best known for portraying the titular businessman in Schindler’s List. And then Taken came out, and the world decided they liked their action stars with a dash of actorly gravitas, the kind of which was all too lacking from the likes of your Van Dammes. After so many films of Neeson pointing guns and barking at people, you forget that the man can act. That’s because, with few exceptions, the Neeson canon of action vehicles have been found enjoyable but insubstantial, momentary pleasures to be forgotten. The same can be said of Run All Night, a promising urban jungle thriller that’s a step above in several areas but ultimately another mildly entertaining film where Neeson points guns and barks at people.
Jimmy (Neeson) is a man haunted by his memories of his life as a hired gun for his pal, mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Jimmy is a drunk who is living off of Shawn, holed up in a crummy home, and eking out his lonely days. He walked out on his son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), when he was young because he wanted him to have a better life. Jimmy thought his misdeeds would create a bad influence. Shawn is also experiencing his own problems with fatherhood. His son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is ambitious, dangerous, and addicted to drugs. He agrees to a business arrangement with Armenian mobsters before dad gives him the A-okay; when dad balks, Danny is on the hook. He murders the two Armenian mobsters who are looking for their money back. Unfortunately, Mike just happened to witness this execution. Jimmy defends his son, shooting and killing Danny. For the rest of a very fraught night, Jimmy tries to protect his son from the many forces of violence that Shawn has sent for vengeance.
The premise of Run All Night is strong unless you say it out loud and examine it. I admire the film’s manner of weaving together storylines in a way that they feel like they’re crashing into one another and yet you could see their trajectory coming. That’s not to mean it’s predictable, which it is of course, but that the conflicts are properly established and set in motion. However, when you analyze the revenge-laden intricacies, it can seem like self-parody: “You murdered my son before he could murder your son. So I’m going to murder you.” “Oh yeah? Well I’m gonna murder you before you murder me for murdering your son before he murdered my son.” Gentlemen, commence your murdering. It reminded me of 2002’s Road to Perdition where a crime lord who readily admitted that his son was a dangerous hotheaded screw-up and had made a mess of things… and yet, he had to stick by him because… family. It’s a frustrating contradiction but it’s believable enough to hold onto. I just wish these crime guys could objectively calculate how guilty and irresponsible their kids are and cut them loose. Seriously, what exactly was Danny thinking when he killed the Armenian mobsters? Did he not think they were going to retaliate? Danny is the kind of irritating screw-up you want to strangle because he endangers others with his constant failures.
Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) has done his genre homework, and Run All Night is a slightly above average thriller that finds ways to flesh out its tropes amidst the urban jungle. After a steady first act, the majority of the movie is a series of chase scenes, several of which are shot and edited well by Neeson’s favorite director of his run and gun pictures, Juame Collet-Sera (Non-Stop, Unknown). The chase scenes make smart use of geography and the way Collet-Sera cuts back and forth with his parallel lines of action does a nice job of quickening pulses. A chase through a train terminal is well choreographed with Jimmy having to out run and out muscle goons and Mike ducking from encroaching police presence on the platform. Ingelsby has a knack for setting up organic suspense pieces and letting them loose. The final act feels a little pat from an action standpoint as well as a moral climax, but it does work. While the characters are birthed from familiar genre archetypes, the film adds interesting shadings to them. Jimmy’s loyalties are tested and he has a strong personal revelation that ties into this theme. The movies finest moment is likely a tense sit-down between Shawn and Jimmy shortly after the events of the night has been set in motion. It’s like Harris and Neeson are competing to see who can be more intimidating Oscar-nominated actor. Bonus: Bruce McGill (Lincoln) plays Harris’ number two and I love some Bruce McGill.
And yet, I kept wishing for Run All Night to go back to the power of its possibilities. There’s a segment where the movie truly feels like it’s being taken to the next level, namely after the crooked cops have been taken out. Instead of just Maguire’s muscle coming after them, now Jimmy and Mike have the NYPD hot on their tail and none too happy about cop killers. That’s another category of antagonists, another chase participant. I also wanted the movie to keep going, bringing in the Armenian mob, which would be incensed and seeking vengeance after their ambassadors were killed. This movie could have had three categories of antagonists (Shawn’s goons, NYPD, Armenian mob) chasing after Jimmy and his son, and the ongoing conflict would have been terrific. The more people that are on the hunt, for their varied reasons, the more possibilities there are for strong and escalating suspense pieces. It could have easily gotten too complicated and convoluted for a mass audience, which is probably why the movie doesn’t reach its true suspenseful potential and follows a conventional route. The NYPD angle is only really incorporated during a building-wide search of an apartment complex where Jimmy and son are hiding. Likewise, the addition of a contract killer played by now Oscar-winner Common (Selma) is a wasted antagonist that doesn’t add much more to the group of bad guys. He’s better at killing, sure, but he doesn’t offer anything new except some hardware. He’s essentially an elevated heavy. He’s meant to serve as the threat after the threat, and no surprise, he does. I wish the character had more personality because he’s just too rote to separate himself. He’s just another ho hum killer in the mix.
There’s a plot point that annoys me to the point that I need to talk about it in more detail, though to do so requires some spoilers, so tread carefully, reader. At one point, Jimmy insists his son does not pull the trigger and kill Common. His wish is that his son would turn out better, and so he doesn’t want him to be forced to commit murder. They leave the contract killer who, you guessed it, continues to try and hunt them down and kills innocent people in the way. I understand the moral imperative Jimmy is going for, but let’s analyze this. It’s self-defense, he’s determined to come back and kill you, and you know innocent lives will suffer if he stays alive and well, whether on this job or future jobs. If ever there was a situation where maybe Mike isn’t going to be racked with guilt into the odd hours of the night debating the descent of his soul into moral decay, this might be the one. It’s one of those moments where the characters have to behave this way because the plot demands it and we need, as stated above, a threat after the main threat. Again, I’m reminded of Road to Perdition, which had a much better additional hitman.
Some things are better enjoyed at your leisure, and Liam Neeson’s action ouvere fits into that category. With few exceptions, a Neeson action film checks the boxes of what you’re looking for in genre entertainment, and with a strong Neeson finish, but rarely will you be surprised or elated. Entertained, sure, for the time being. Run All Night is an action thriller that has its moments and some well-drawn suspense sequences, and I appreciate that it tries to provide more depth to the main characters besides their preferred killing weapon of choice. However, there’s just too much squandered potential, underwritten supporting characters, and heavy-handed messages about the sins of the father. Run All Night is a solid genre thriller that does enough well to be worth your time, though you certainly don’t need to exert any energy to run out and see it.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Anyone else think the titles of these Apes prequels should be retroactively switched? Coming off the heels of the surprisingly excellent flick Rise of the Planet of the Apes, those damn dirty apes are back with another summer blockbuster that’s just as mature, engrossing, emotionally resonant, and visually remarkable. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after the events of the previous entry, with mankind devastated by the “Simian Flu,” the same bug that has kick-started the evolution of the primates. Caesar (Andy Serkis in motion capture) is leading a fairly conservative life; he has a home, a family, a wife, and a community he’s trying to build. Then a group of humans wander into their territory needing access to the remains of a dam for a power supply. The apes do not trust the humans, but Caesar accepts their terms, looking to avoid war. However, fear, resentment, and hate fester on both sides, and it’s not long before it’s apes vs. humans and you witness one of the greatest things your eyeballs will ever see – an ape firing two machine guns while riding a horse. Plot-wise, this film is more a bridge to a larger conflict between the two factions. The human characters (including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman) are given short shrift. And that’s fine because the movie belongs to the apes; they are the stars rightfully. Half of this movie is in subtitles for ape sign language. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) dwells in the moments other blockbusters don’t have time for. He lingers in the shadows, with silences, and we slowly integrate into the world of the apes and their own power dynamics. The all-out action of the third act doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the thoughtful movie that has played out until that point. The visual effects are again top-notch and the motion capture tech captures a stunning range of human emotions that you can witness play out across the CGI creations. Toby Kebbell (Wrath of the Titans) portrays Koba, the more hawkish member of the ape tribe, and he is just as good as Serkis, which is saying a lot. I’d still call Rise a better overall film, but Dawn is a more than worthy follow-up that reminds audiences what great storytelling can achieve with the right people behind the scenes.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Chef must have been something of a needed break for its star, writer, and director, Jon Favreau. He’s directed three large-scale Hollywood sci-fi mega movies in a row, a long way from Favrieau’s first big break, Swingers, which he wrote for himself. It was time for something a little smaller, quieter, and more personal, and Chef is just the ticket, a familiar but still greatly satisfying slice-of-life movie about a frustrated chef finding his mojo. Favreau plays a famous chef who cracks under the pressure of delivering the same safe food day in and day out. He loses his job after an increasingly hostile Twitter war with a food critic who calls him out for his safety in blandness. This pushes Favreau out of his comfort zone; he starts an independent food truck, bonds with his son, and generally begins to embrace his new invigorating freedom. Don’t see this movie on an empty stomach because it will be torture. The food preparation shots are tantalizing as are the general discussions over the adoration of food, the heavenly feel of a good meal (an aspect that’s even utilized as foreplay in the film). The entire film is stoked by a laid back charm, an amiable camaraderie between Favreau and his cast, so much so that we don’t care when the film sort of stalls. It’s a far lengthier period between Favreau losing job and getting the food truck than necessary, and the ending is abrupt with an almost absurd amount of resolution tie-ups crammed together without additional progression. The characters are likeable enough, funny, and their passions have a way of enveloping the audience, so much so that a fairly predictable plot is excusable. Chef is a lovely little palate cleanser at the start of the summer movie season and an enjoyable excursion. Just fill up before seeing it or else.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Surprisingly adroit, Mr. Peabody & Sherman might just be more fun for adults, especially fans of the original 1960s cartoon, than for little kids. It’s under the “family film” banner, a dubious one historically, but I was laughing consistently and good, snorting laughs, long chuckles; the whole gamut. With The LEGO Movie, the wide release of The Wind Rises, and now this, 2014 is shaping up to be a stellar year for animation aficionados. The movie between a genius dog and his adopted son is given the right amount of reverence before all the cheeky irreverence through history. The hops through time, notably the French Revolution, ancient Egypt, and the Trojan War, are fast-paced and clever without stooping to provide much context for the jokes; you either get them or you don’t. Even the necessary character building components between father and son are treated smartly, coming together for an ending that approaches poignancy. The plot can get a little complicated toward the end, what with opening a space-time paradox, but I respect the movie for being complex and tricky and scientific and trusting its audience to play along. The animation looks a little scruffy compared to other big screen efforts, but the script just flat-out works. The comedy, the drama, the relationships, but especially the comedy. If you’re on the fence, please, do yourself a favor, and go see Mr. Peabody & Sherman, especially if you appreciate history and those who love it. I saw it with my father and we both laughed ourselves silly. Needless to say, this blows 2000’s Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle out of the water.
Nate’s Grade: A-
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-