Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Beginners, directed by Mike Mills and co-starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, is about as close to cinematic perfection as I've seen in 2011.
The film, which is presented non-chronologically, begins with Oliver (McGregor) cleaning out the home of his recently deceased father, Hal (Plummer). Oliver is a wonderfully fragmented creature, a graphic designer by trade whose relationships have always ended in failure yet who radiates the presence of a man capable of tremendous, tremendous love. Oliver simultaneously adopts Arthur, his father's obviously grief-stricken Jack Russell Terrier, giving what is unquestionably the year's best performance by a four-legged actor. It is from this place of loss and grief that Beginners begins, but it is far from where it ends.
Beginners will be too offbeat for some moviegoers, and it will likely feel a tad pretentious for others. For this writer and lover of all things cinematic, Beginners is one of the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying cinematic experiences since Garden State, the last film to receive a 4-star rating from this site. Perfectly weaving together the vast array of human experiences and thoughts and feelings, writer/director Mike Mills has created a film that is quirky and funny and dramatic and richly developed and that stays with you not just hours but days after viewing it. The performances are near perfection, sublimely nuanced and deeply authentic.
Oliver tells the story of his parents with voice-over that works, a fairly typical story of a young couple married in the 1950's who have a child and live, if not completely happily, at least with tremendous contentment. Then, his mother dies and a few months later Hal comes out of the closet with a vengeance. Hal tells his son that he has always known he was gay, but he simply chose to not live that way as much out of habit as anything. Then, Hal is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Mills transports the film back and forth in time, before and after Hal's Death. After Hal's death, Oliver is stricken with grief and an apparent sense of brokenness and loss of direction. Taking Arthur everywhere, he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds) at a Halloween party and the two hit it off rather seriously. While much of the film's marketing, to a fault really, has been directed towards the film's father/son relationship, it is worth noting that a good portion of the film's 105 minute running time is devoted to Oliver's relationship with Anna and their mutual growth in their abilities of being loving, fully alive human beings.
Ewan McGregor anchors the film with what is undoubtedly one of his finest performances, a disciplined and deeply sensitive performance with just the right amounts of humor and heart. This is actually the performance he was going for in last year's I Love You Philip Morris, if only he'd been able to wipe that damn smirk off Jim Carrey's face. Opposite the fantastic Christopher Plummer, McGregor leaps to the top of his game and reminds all of us of those great performances early in his career.
Christopher Plummer, who has worked steadily and masterfully in Hollywood for decades, seemed to leap back on the A-list following his acclaimed turn in the ultra-indie Man in the Chair a few years back. Since that performance, Plummer has been churning out truly incredible work including his Oscar-nominated turn in The Last Station. At the very least, an Independent Spirit Award nomination should be assured here as Plummer embodies soulfulness and celebration and remarkable humanity all at once.
Melanie Laurent, who was tremendous in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, gives a full-bodied and soulful performance as Anna, a woman with her own issues but sweet and funny and wonderful with Oliver. Anna could have so easily been turned into a one-note role, but Laurent brings her to life wondrously. Mary Page Keller gives a terrific performance in a relatively brief appearance as Oliver's mother.
It would have been so easy to have turned Beginners into a dark and ominous exploration of end-of-life and relationship issues, but Mills wisely tells a story, loosely based upon his own experiences, that is filled with the fullness that life has to offer. The mere fact that Mills can weave his way through one man's joyous "coming out," the same man's terminal illness, a lost son's efforts to be loved and, yes, even a beloved dog's human-like perspectives, reveals a filmmaker truly at the top of his game.
Awards season is not yet upon us, but so far Beginners is the best film of 2011.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic