Nothing in Begin Again, a grin-machine Roman candle of a film, should work. It features more cliches than should be legally allowed. A starry-eyed and uncompromising songwriter. A bum music producer needing one last shot. A rising star who just dumped the songwriter to get busy losing his soul. The comic relief guy. A fractured family that just needs their dad to get his act together. A basket full of dreams. Some beautiful songs that just need to be heard. New. York. City. But writer/director John Carney gets away with it, whipping through the stock situations with a hummingbird-light grace.
As he did in the similar if superior Once, Carney sticks a couple striving musical dreamers together and lets them feed off each other’s yearning. Here, the meet-musical sticks faded producer and champion drunk Dan (Mark Ruffalo, rarely more winningly scruffy) being wowed by Gretta (Keira Knightley), a British singer-songwriter about to slink back home from New York after her boyfriend (an oddly amorphous Adam Levine) dumps her and their creative relationship to climb the fame ladder. Dan sees Gretta strumming her ballad before a distracted bar crowd and hears in her tentative strummings a hit.
Under Dan’s fevered watch, the instruments surrounding her play on their own like some spellbinding moment of whimsy in a forgotten Disney film, filling the soaring sounds in his half-drunk mind. A few too many drinks later, Dan’s convinced her to delay her escape from New York. After favors are called in and session musicians are corralled, they’re recording her songs on the fly. One is done in an alley with traffic in the background and some kids thrown in as a last-minute chorus; another on a rooftop.
After that, Carney doesn’t bother putting many obstacles in his stars’ way. The album of street songs is thought up and executed on the fly, with numerous grin-slathered montages stitching it together. Yet the winsomeness of this ad-hoc enterprise never overpowers. Carney underplays his hands, keeping his delicate sense of proportion from ever tipping over into ticky-tack fakery. He ensures the emotions stay fresh and the comedy sharp; helped particularly in the last regard by the great James Corden, as Gretta’s street musician pal and shoulder to cry on. The high spirits and winsome optimism displays the full, clattering absurdity of an MPAA that allows bullet-riddled apocalypti like Transformers 4 to skate past with a corporate-approved PG-13 but slaps an R on a film where the worst thing that happens is recording music on the street without a license. And running out on a bar tab.
The stakes never feel high and that’s not a bad thing. You get the impression that even if Gretta had never called Dan back, something else would have sparked his inspiration. Gretta may well have found success elsewhere; but even if she didn’t, her laissez-faire mentality would have kept her from caring overly much. Dan keeps having to coax her into caring about recording anything at all. The music helps the film glide along but it’s the heartbreak that spikes its pulse, whether coming from Gretta’s unconscionably lame ex (whose purposefully overproduced pop ballads are only a few twists of the dial away from Gretta’s sometimes milquetoast material) or Dan’s fearsomely paired estranged daughter (a note-perfect Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife (Catherine Keener).
Instead of the expected shaggy-dog story about an unlikely pair achieving success in the cutthroat music industry against all the odds, Begin Again delivers a light and dancing comedy about fresh starts. The spirit here is that of a classic Garland/Rooney “Hey gang, let’s put on a show!” musical mixed with a scrappy cute indie about loveable outsiders. In the end, it’s the music, and the joyful act of creating it, that matters.