Apply the romcom label to any movie and chances are I will run a mile, with good reason. I despise the grotesque Hollywood habit of ladling on dollops of saccharine schmaltz to scripts that often read like a state funeral oration, all the more aggravating when they include very decent casts of blameless character actors alongside the wannabe teen idols.
Of course there are honourable exceptions among the dross, though the tendency is for the likes of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, As Good As It Gets, When Harry Met Sally, Bridget Jones’s Diary Pretty Woman and very many more to divide opinion sharply. They might be enduringly popular, notably but not exclusively with the female audience, but many have become so formulaic and predictable you could write the plot without seeing them. More worryingly still, they are now competing for attention by merging with the gross-out comedy genre, Bridesmaids being one example on TV this week. I turned to this movie by accident, could barely watch any of it, and in fact switched over at the first commercial break after a scene involving vomit and diarrhoea. I can think of no reason whatever to watch movies that exist solely to press buttons, be that sentimental tears or disgust.
It is unfortunate that Beginners was dragged down by association with this epithet, thanks to an industry that loves to label everything to within an inch of its life. It might have romantic aspects and themes, emotional content and some wistfully amusing lines, but it does not deserve to be saddled with that burden.
It is, by contrast, a delightfully subtle bittersweet drama and a credit to writer/director Mike Mills. Simply and elegantly it transposes the conflicted feelings of a son whose father comes out as gay after his mother has died and blossoms in the last 5 years before his own death from cancer, against his own relationships and attitude to life. It adds wit, depth, poignancy and charm to the situation experienced by its characters in place of the artificial emotion painted on by the yard you might expect of the romcom genre. It is funny but without having to force the laughs, and that is for me the way comedy should be.
It is virtually the antithesis of romcom superficiality by virtue of dealing with real life issues in a reflective and human way, and in truth speaks to me about my relationships, with my father and with women. It moved me and, I suspect, it would have the same effect on most people who took the time to watch and appreciate the hidden depth, the mark of a well-judged movie on the intricacies of all modern relationships. And indeed critics too, the few with a heart, since they gave the movie almost unanimous rave reviews:
The film has received positive reviews upon release. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 84% of critics gave the film a positive review based on 147 reviews with a “Certified Fresh” rating, with an average score of 7.3/10. The site’s consensus states: “Wearing its twee heart on its sleeve, Beginners explores the depths of modern, multi-generational romance with wit and depth.” At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, Beginners received an average score of 81, based on 36 reviews, citing “universal acclaim”.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, saying, “It’s a hopeful fable with deep optimism and a cheerful style that kids itself.” Peter Debruge from Variety said the film is “deeply poignant and disarmingly personal”.
Beginners won the 2011 Gotham Award for Best Feature, shared with The Tree of Life. Christopher Plummer won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture 2012, and the Denver Film Critics Society Award, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, the National Board of Review Award and the Online Film Critics Award, all for Best Supporting Actor.
The film was nominated for the Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer) and was also nominated for Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Male. At the 84th Academy Awards, Plummer won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The reasons why it explores relationships with such poignancy is not hard to see when you learn that Beginners is based on the true-life coming out of Mills’ father at the age of 75, five years before his death. Truth is always stranger than fiction, right?
Then again, to achieve such a beautiful result you need to start with top class raw materials – and they don’t come much better than a cast headed by Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent and an experienced actor by the name of Cosmo (the Jack Russell playing Arthur, vying for supremacy in the Canine Oscars with Uggie, who played Jack in The Artist.) Plummer justly won his Oscar, but there is not a weak link to be found.
This is far from the only romcom McGregor has appeared in, and indeed he seems to have a knack for them. Here he brings more than flair. Playing Mills’ alter ego (“Oliver Fields”) requires innate sensitivity, not copying. McGregor gets beneath the skin, particularly why the Mills character feels the need to walk away when relationships start getting serious. Whether that is true of Mills rather than just his alter ego is not clear, but the role is played beautifully, peeling the layers of the psychological onion to perfection as Fields comes to term with his own needs and wants, learning finally at the age of 38 to be honest with himself and others.
Laurent’s character, a French actress called Anna, struggles to cope with his reserve, to understand the man beneath the facade, the man she comes to love and wants to be with. He has reservations about her nature and personality, though that is really clutching at straws, finding excuses to walk away from her while the memories of his parents during his childhood flood his memory, clues obvious with the benefit of hindsight.
With Hal Fields, the father, there is no such honesty issue. Having been repressed so long he comes out and satisfies every urge he had stifled without a blemish – maybe the way we would all love to live, whatever our secret desires. And despite the best efforts of McGregor, it is Plummer who steals the movie by taking full advantage of the role. Like fine wine, he matures with age. This is a toned performance, naturalistic but constructed with skill and verve. Without ever needing to plummet the depths of romcom melodrama, Plummer carries off Hal Fields with panache, a touch of swagger even. It’s a performance I could watch all day, beguiling and engaging, holds the eye and draws you into the character’s world. In fact, one of comparatively few performances that truly deserve the Oscar.
I urge you to see beyond the label and enjoy Beginners on its own terms and its own merits.