I’ve written before about how I’ve often felt victimized by queer cinema; I’ve also written about how I have not liked a Ewan McGregor film in years, despite my deep and abiding affection for the man. I was worried going in that Beginners would occupy the intersection of those two Venn circles; with its endless voiceover, multiple montages, cutesy line drawings of the protagonist’s relationship history, and the subtitling of a Jack Russell terrier’s “dialogue,” the film almost qualified for my Exacta of Disappointment within the first ten minutes.
Not quite, though. You’ve probably heard the basics of the story, but in case: After the death of his mother, lifelong Angeleno Oliver (McGregor) gets the shock of his life when his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) informs him he’s gay. Apparently, his mother knew and thought she could change him, but considering she was a total weirdo whose defining Quirk Alert character trait was inappropriate behavior in museums, I suppose it makes sense she’d take on that quixotic effort. Starting from soon after the mother’s death, the film intercuts between the past and the present (the latter being a few months after Hal’s death); in the past, Hal, with a much younger boyfriend, Andy (Goran Visnjic, and despite have JUST seen him in the new Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I didn’t recognize him for ages thanks to his terrible haircut), and a Gay Circle Of Friends, is unfortunately soon diagnosed with cancer that will prove to be terminal. Meanwhile, in the film’s present, Oliver meets French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent, so wonderful in Inglourious Basterds) at a party and starts dating her despite the fact that they both have a history of walking out on people, although an acceptable definition of “walking out” in this case seems to be “staring at your navel until the other person throws up his/her hands and bounces.”
I’m not saying there aren’t nice moments. When allowed to talk like actual people, the characters do well; there’s a particular moment I liked when Hal is fussing at Oliver to be careful moving all his gay-iana, prompting Oliver to snit, “How about the chair? Is the chair gay?” And I also enjoyed Oliver introducing Anna to the wonders of the taco truck. But every time a scene actually seems like it’s getting somewhere, the film decides to bullshit us with a history lesson montage punctuated by a few lines from Howl, or with Anna and Oliver gliding their way across various local sights on stolen roller skates like assholes, or with inexplicably cutting out of a fight for an inane “This is what it looks like when…” masturbatory voiceover. She’s got daddy issues, his parents didn’t love each other. Same with lots of people – is that any reason for them to break up for literally no reason, within two onscreen minutes of her moving in with him? If you’re wondering where the film lost me for good, that was it right there – from that point forward you couldn’t have paid me to care about that relationship. “But it’s so beautifully tragic, with the self-fulfilling prophecy and — ” Don’t care.
These are all actors I love, and they all do fine work with what they’re given and are the reason I held out hope until late in the game. Christopher Plummer seems to be the recent presumptive favorite for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and he’s quite good here (as Sarah did, I had in my notes how much I loved the house music bit), but I do wonder if he’s being nominated for simultaneously checking off Playing Gay and Playing Dying on the Academy Award scorecard as much as his performance; it’s not his fault, but the film mires itself in its own indulgences too much for me really to feel the depth of his character. If I’m being honest, I think the actor that shines the most given what he has to work with is Visnjic – it’s such an odd role for him, but he embraces it without an ounce of pretension, and turns in a deceptively moving performance when at the get-go I thought he was going to be a punchline. It’s too bad, because with a disciplined script and, to paraphrase Sarah, a director who was confident enough to focus on the story instead of the distractions, this film could have been worthwhile. And Ewan, once again, I’m not mad at you. I could watch you all day, with your open face and lovely hair and beautiful, beautiful eyes. But given the projects that appeal to you, I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t do so in movies anymore.