Movie Review: ‘Once’ more, with less feeling

Beautiful music together: Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in
Beautiful music together: Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in "Begin Again."

‘Begin Again”
★★★

You can’t really blame writer/director John Carney for trying, but despite a few very nice moments, this bigger, slicker follow-up mostly argues that “Once” should have been enough.

“Begin Again” isn’t a follow-up in the sense of a sequel to Carney’s near-perfect 2006 indie romance (which went on to become a Tony-winning Broadway musical). It’s more like an attempt to lay down the template and have another go — but with movie stars this time around and a much plusher budget.

As in “Once,” a love story about two singer/songwriters recording a passion-project album in Dublin, “Begin Again” is roughly equal parts romantic love and love of music. Only, in this case, the main characters’ past romantic relationships dominate.

The film opens with amorously disillusioned Greta (Keira Knightley, who does her own singing agreeably enough) singing a song about loneliness at an open-mike night in New York and generally being ignored — except for one seriously rumpled, middle-aged guy who’s clearly transported. The guy’s name is Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and he’s a Grammy-winning music producer who has made a spectacular disaster of his career and his personal life and had been, moments earlier, contemplating suicide on a subway platform.

Dan’s marriage is on the rocks after an affair, he’s lost touch with his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and he’s drinking himself into a stupor, but he still lives for good music and knows the real thing when he hears it.

And, in one of the film’s best moments, “Begin Again” shows us precisely what he hears in Greta’s song, complete with invisible band members backing her up with a perfect arrangement — a revelation resulting in a big, drunkenly beatific smile on his face.

Dan knows Greta’s got the goods. He has to convince Greta to sign with him though and that’s difficult because he’s just been fired from his label and she has no interest in the music business, especially after breaking up with her obnoxious, on-the-brink-of-rockstardom-boyfriend (Adam Levine of the band Maroon 5).

So, when he can’t talk his old boss (Mos Def) into taking a chance on her, Dan decides to record her songs live and low-budget in a variety of New York settings and get her music out there himself.

All of that’s fine and dandy except for one problem. Where the relationship between the main characters dovetailed perfectly with the music in “Once” (largely because romantic leads Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová wrote the songs and actually were romantically involved), the relationship between Greta and Dan generally feels trumped up.

So its hard to ignore the slightly bogus vibe that comes from the supposedly live, lo-fi recordings quite obviously produced in a studio despite the film’s chest thumping in favor of artistic authenticity and integrity over artifice and commercialism.

That’s a shame because there’s a lot to like about “Begin Again.” Or more accurately, there’s a lot to like about some of its song segments, featuring wistful pop ballads by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois of the New Radicals.

Like Dan, Carney (who once played in Hansard’s band the Frames) clearly knows good stuff when he hears it and has a nice knack for capturing the joy of making music on screen.

Still, it’s hard to work up much interest about Dan’s attempts to patch things up with his wife (Catherine Keener) or the possibility that Greta might get back together with her self-obsessed boyfriend or the kind-of-but-not-really romantic tension between producer and artist. But when the songs work well, as a few of them do, much can be forgiven.

No, they don’t quite recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of “Once,” but there may be a couple of times when you feel something like Dan’s big, beatific smile starting to make an appearance on your own face. And that’s something.

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