The fingerprints of "Once" are all over "Begin Again," and not just because John Carney directed both films.
This is another picture about artists making music on the streets of a major metropolis, with New York City standing in for Dublin this time around. It also romanticizes the creative process and attempts to evoke the soul and passion that you can only feel in a piece of art made free from commercial limitations.
But whereas the small-scale earlier film had a gritty naturalism that helped its form reflect the content - the movie appeared to have been made under the same conditions as the music - this one couches the same ideas in a fantasy aesthetic that detracts from the process. Put simply, it never feels real, even if Mark Ruffalo invests his performance with plentiful feeling, Keira Knightley shows off some serious singing ability and the movie evokes the magic of great music in interesting ways.
The picture stars Knightley as a singer-songwriter named Greta coping with her philandering musical superstar boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, playing a version of himself and doing a terrible, terrible job of it). Ruffalo plays bottomed-out music executive Dan, who stumbles upon Greta performing during an open mic night at a dive bar.
He's smitten with her talent, sees the potential behind the drab cardigan and slouchy demeanor, and soon enough they're recording an album at locations across the city with a bunch of talented backing musicians.
The film functions as a love letter to a musical New York, playing a bit like an infomercial for NYC & Company, the city's tourism organization. Sometimes, it seems to exist only for pristine shots of Knightley performing on a boat in the middle of the Central Park Lake or the stars skipping through the strangely uncrowded wonderland of Times Square while listening to Frank Sinatra sing "Luck Be a Lady."
"Begin Again" belongs to a long cinematic tradition in its fairytale depiction of the city. There's a line between whimsical and just plain dumb when it comes to this sort of thing, though. Too often, the movie, which is basically clueless about what it's like to live here, crosses it. The simplistic depiction of the music business rings equally false; in the movie's world, the suits are bad, the artists are good and never the twain shall meet.
The quality stuff pretty much all comes from Ruffalo, the one presence in this movie who feels as if every fiber of his being has been infused with the joy of music. There's a scene in which he watches Knightley strum acoustically and envisions a symphony of drums, violin, piano and more around her that does a powerful job of visually conveying the artistic process. If only he had more to work with.
Directed by John Carney
Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld
Playing at Angelika, Lincoln Square