Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a legendary New York producer who became jaded and lost track of his life after his marriage broke apart, and Gretta (Keira Knightley) is a British musician who only writes for herself (and sometimes her cat). Gretta comes to New York with her boyfriend (Adam Levine) who signs a record deal with an American label and comes out of the closet as a ‘rockstar’. Dan has just been fired from the record label that he started. The two meet at a singer-songwriter open mic night at a low point in both their lives. Dan decides that Gretta has music with soul, and he finally finds something that inspires him to get back in the record producing game. The two then set off on an adventure to record a rather brave and adventurous concept album. In the process, Dan helps Gretta get her groove back and Gretta helps Dan realise how he is standing in his own way – very Lost in Translation meets PG-13 Californication, but set in hipster New York. The music is nice and dreamy, and combined with the cinematography it distinctly makes you feel like you’re living in a New York hipster’s iPhone.
This movie set in the New York indie music scene is writer-director John Carney’s latest offering. He shot to fame with his musical Once, which was about a busker and an immigrant who find each other, have an eventful week and in the process write and record songs of the love story that they live in that week before they return to their own realities. Carney’s work is moving, talking about love as an act of adventure and collaboration and creating something together. As opposed to how movies often talk about love — he/she loves me, loves me not and that other guy/girl or even how one has to prove one’s worth to the other or realise the other’s worth.
Unfortunately, Begin Again falls deep into the trenches of the standard indie romantic comedy. Gretta, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (less dreamy and not-at-all manic but exceptionally talented), despite avoiding most traps of the MPDG stereotype, has no women friends. At all. Everything Gretta does, does not do, wants to do, doesn’t want to do has something to do with a male character. Dan’s wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), is a great waste of Catherine Keener. Dan’s daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), is the only one who actually has a scene in which she talks to another named character (Gretta, obviously) and the two begin by talking about how Violet can get a boy’s attention, and then they go shopping. While there are no other named women characters with speaking roles, so much talking potential between the mother-daughter and even between Gretta-Violet was completely wasted. This exceptionally beautiful movie fails the Bechdel Test quite miserably. While Begin Again hides it really well (thankfully nobody is nice to Dan as he goes around being a dick to everyone), it still falls under the category of “male wish-fulfillment cinema”.
You want a better example of a movie set in a subculture without losing character depth or the love, adventure and nuances of the subculture? Try Lake Bell’s In A World…, which is a comedy about a girl navigating her way through the LA voice industry, and it has a rom-com subplot even.