Saturday, November 19, 2011


BEGINNERS              A-                   
USA  (105 mi)  2010  d:  Mike Mills                Beginners  (official site)

Our good fortune allowed us to feel the sadness our parents never had time for.                
—Oliver Fields (Ewen McGregor)

Apart from everything else this is, it’s definitely a Los Angeles movie, and one of the better ones at that, using uniquely chosen natural settings offering such a positive view of the city, making excellent use of the distant skyline that of course includes the unsightliness of hovering smog while also using many interior shots of the Los Angeles County Art Museum.  But most importantly, from the opening shot, there’s a gorgeous home with a beautiful garden and big glass windows furnishing that perfect view of the city off in the distance.  It’s the kind of place one would like to call home, but immediately the narrator, Ewen McGregor as Oliver, indicates this is the room where his father died, which sets the backstory in motion, told almost entirely through flashbacks.  Apparently based on the director’s own personal experience, Mills has crafted a loving portrait of his father, Christopher Plummer, who announces he is gay at the age of 75 just after Oliver’s mother dies.  It has a kind of Buddhist spirituality about it, as it apparently took his mother’s death to allow the inner life of her husband to blossom, as he finally discovers a joy in life like never before with parties, dancing, and newfound friends, and even a much younger lover Andy (Goran Visnjic).  This picture of uninhibited happiness is a complete turnaround from the era of living in a closet, which Oliver knew nothing about until this recent revelation.  Through the use of family photos, still shots, and campy magazine photos, Mills beautifully expresses each era through the embellishment of advertising, including car and smoking ads, showing people enjoying their leisure activity.  Oliver himself has a kind of stunted emotional growth, stuck somewhere between the eras, never quite understanding the complexity of his parent’s relationship, which is even more baffling to him in the present. 

Despite the kumbaya feel good story that seems destined for the typical upbeat, movie-of-the-week format, this film has quite a few surprises in store, one of which is frequently jumping back and forth through different time periods, while another is an Asta-like dog (from THE THIN MAN series of the 30’s) that has a limited human vocabulary, where Oliver can actually comprehend his subtitled thoughts.  Otherwise, Oliver leads an emotionally detached life where he observes his father’s outpourings of happiness almost as a tourist, as he’s there through it all, but doesn’t exactly know how to join in.  Prodded by his coworkers where Oliver works as a sketch artist, he reluctantly attends a party where he meets Mélanie Laurent as Anna, an actress with one of the most impressive opening appearances, surprising everyone with her openly flirtatious style that is easily one of the best performances of the year, as she literally steals every scene she’s in, and may even steal the movie that’s not even about her, as she’s initially a tangential character, but her chemistry with Oliver provides the fireworks that’s missing in his life.  Still, he’s lost in a fog about the memory of his father, wondering how his parents could keep pretending for all those years, doubting his own capacity for a long term relationship.  It’s this bristling honesty that may be the most pleasant surprise and the true revelation of the film, making the viewer feel like they’re actually experiencing something remarkable happening, as there are snippets of gay rights history thrown in that allow people to reflect upon how love was expressed generations ago when it had to remain a closely guarded secret. 

One of the other delicious surprises is Oliver’s mother, Mary Page Keller, who due to the passionless circumstances with her husband decides to make Oliver her pet project by introducing him to age inappropriate material with unbridled relish, where she seems to be having a blast onscreen.  Oliver, on the other hand, is flabbergasted by this overtly scandalous treatment, embarrassed by his mother’s ultra liberated, free spirited style, eventually driving him to the obscure safety of that button down conservative that he is today.  But Anna shows those same sparks, another fiercely individualistic force of nature that literally defies belief, yet Oliver hesitates, as he’s done his entire life.  In fact, McGregor may hold the entire picture back, as perhaps he doesn’t wish to overstep what amounts to the director’s own personal life story, so remains something of a blank canvas waiting for life to color him in.  As is, he remains the odd man out in his own movie, something of a wet blanket, as his father, mother, girlfriend, and even his dog outshine him in every respect, where they couldn’t be more artfully crafted and intensely appealing characters onscreen. 

It’s a little like his role in I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS (2009), where he is rather tame and conventional in comparison to the ever cheerful but boldly outlandish Jim Carrey.  In each instance, you wonder if he’s worth the adoration the other characters pour on him.  He was so much better in the outrageously garish musical production that is MOULIN ROUGE (2001) and the downbeat existential ménage a trois in YOUNG ADAM (2003), as in each we felt we were literally inhabiting his skin.  Here he is stuck in the center of the universe, but it’s the stars and planets aligned around him that shine so much brighter. The mistake is always thinking we’re the center instead of just one of the movable parts.  Perhaps what prevents us from recognizing love is a psychologically imposed barrier of self-doubt, a kind of delusion that always leads to failure, where true love necessitates that you push aside that trap of self preservation and wholly trust that something better awaits you.  This is a film that never quite grasps the secret to lasting relationships other than insisting that fears and misunderstandings and other forks in the road are real, where from Oliver’s point of view, there is an open but still undiscovered path, but from Anna’s, there’s some question as to what she sees in Oliver in the first place, perhaps wondering why Oliver’s mother stayed in such an emotionally unfulfilled marriage for so long, questions that remain unanswered.  What we discover then is that we’re not ready for answers yet, that we’re not at that all important commitment threshold, but, as the title suggests, still in a feeling out and the getting to know you stage, in the throes of something they as yet barely comprehend.    

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