It’s incredible what can be achieved when you combine music with film, and John Carney exploited that perfect pairing with his musical drama “Once.” It’s been eight years since the small indie walked away with an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and in that time, the Irish-born writer/director made a couple films in his native country that flew so far under the radar that they never saw release here. So while it may seem a tad desperate of Carney to mark his Hollywood debut with another music-driven relationship drama, he’s simply playing to his strengths. “Begin Again” doesn’t quite have the same magic of “Once,” but it’s a sweet and cuddly crowd-pleaser highlighted by a pair of great performances and some catchy tunes.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Dan Mulligan, a self-described “selfish, depressed prick” who’s just been fired from the very record label he helped found. While on a bender later that night, he stumbles into a bar hosting an open mic event and is immediately moved by an original song performed by Greta (Keira Knightley), a British singer-songwriter who’s just had an equally bad day after being dumped by her rock star boyfriend (Adam Levine) following his first taste of success. Determined to share Greta’s indisputable talent with the rest of the world, Dan convinces her to record an album with a live band in different locations across New York City in the hope that he can convince his former business partner (Mos Def) to sign Greta to their label and rescue his job.
To label “Begin Again” as a romantic comedy would cheapen the dramatic elements in the film’s script, but it’s definitely a much more lighthearted affair than “Once,” even if the overall theme is very similar – namely, that it’s less about these two people failing in love with each other than the music they make together. The soundtrack is also really good, featuring an infectious array of bluesy folk-pop songs co-written by Carney, “Once” star Glen Hansard, New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander and others, especially those performed by a surprisingly capable Knightley, who has a Norah Jones-like quality to her voice. The idea behind Greta’s album may be a little gimmicky, but the city-wide recording sessions provide some great visuals to accompany the musical sequences. However, the best moment comes early on when Ruffalo’s character imagines an orchestrated arrangement around Greta’s acoustic solo that’s about as close to crawling inside the mind of a record producer as you’ll likely get.
But for as much as the movie depends on the music, it’s just as reliant on its two stars, who form such a delightful chemistry that it’s hard not to get caught up in their fairy tale. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Adam Levine, who’s not only a pretty bad actor, but whose subplot is so clichéd that it would have been time better spent further exploring the relationship between Dan and his estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). It’s a good thing that the Maroon 5 frontman has such a small role, because he’s easily the worst part about the film – save for its painfully generic title, of course.
The movie’s original title (“Can a Song Save Your Life?”) wasn’t much better, but at least it was relative to what the film was about. And considering just how important that message is to both characters’ respective arcs, you’d think that Carney would have fought a little harder to keep it. Or maybe it just wasn’t a battle worth fighting, because lousy title or not, “Begin Again” is basically the movie equivalent of a YouTube cat video: cute and amusing, but not exactly bursting with substance.