beginners, christopher plummer, closet, comedy, ewan mcgregor, family, freud, gay, goran visnjic, gospel, jack russell terrier, mary page keller, me and you and everyone we know, melanie laurent, miranda july, no one belongs here more than you, the future, the sound of music, thumbsucker, walter kirn
Movie Review: “Beginners”
Grade: A- (SEE IT)
IN THE BEGINNING was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God had a Son, and God said: “Son, I’m gay.” This is the gospel according to Mike Mills’ new film, “Beginners,” inspired in part by the director’s own relationship with his father, Paul, who died of cancer in 2004 shortly after coming out of the closet. Paul (or “Hal” as he’s known in Mills’ film) is played sensitively and memorably – Oscar voters take note! – by 81-year-old veteran actor Christopher Plummer. That’s right, Christopher Plummer as in Captain Georg von Trapp in 1965’s “The Sound of Music” and pretty much every film since then. What lends “Beginners” its charm is the smiling spryness Plummer brings to the role of a septuagenarian essentially reborn as the gay man he never got to be. We see him, shirt unbuttoned, strolling a dance floor packed with younger men, and later, calling his son for some social cues. “Oliver, they had some wonderfully loud music in the club tonight,” he informs him over the phone, “What kind of music is that?” His son, in bed, replies reticently: “Probably house music.” “Okay,” says Plummer, chuckling to himself as he writes this down in case he forgets, “House music.”
As Mills’ fictional stand-in, Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor) is a kind-hearted Los Angelino who inherits his father’s Jack Russell terrier named Arthur (played by Cosmo) after his dad dies at age 75. Since the film is told nonchronologically, we’re sometimes given endings before beginnings, which keeps the memories of Oliver’s deceased parents alive and, well, amusing from start of finish. In one flashback, a young Oliver is taken to an art museum by his eccentric mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller). She’s asked to leave after imitating the geometric designs on display. “What?” she asks her young son, “I’m not allowed to interact with the art?” Now flash forward to the modern day where Oliver meets Anna (the ravishing Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party where Oliver, with Arthur in tow, is dressed as the good Viennese doctor, Sigmund Freud. A mute Anna has laryngitis and communicates only through pen and paper. Playing the analysand, she sprawls out on the sofa before him. “I guess we should begin with your mother,” Oliver jokes. A relationship soon blossoms to parallel the love story of Hal and his young boyfriend Andy (a shockingly plain Goran Visnjic in a pageboy haircut).
The first frame of “Beginners” features a white flower in full bloom followed closely by the grim imagery of death: Oliver cleaning out his father’s house in the Hollywood Hills, dragging garbage bags to the curb, and flushing his dad’s cancer meds down the drain. There’s a love of whimsy and unpredictability in Mills’ “Beginners,” as well as in his 2005 adaptation of Walter Kirn’s coming-of-age story, “Thumbsucker.” Mills is probably better known, however, as Mister Miranda July (“Me and You and Everyone We Know” and the oddball short story collection, “No One Belongs Here More Than You”). Director of “The Future,” July shares Mills’ love of social weirdness, and since we’re getting Freudian, Oliver’s mother sports a curly haircut uncannily similar to the real-life July’s.
From the outset of “Beginners,” Hal’s Jack Russell is so preternaturally smart that he speaks in subtitles, a clever but gimmicky touch that kept the audience members around me giggling to no end. Giving Arthur a tour of his apartment, Oliver sits him down, man-to-man, and tells him: “Look, it’s lonely out here, so you better learn how to talk with me.” An alert-looking Arthur stares back, his subtitle reading: “While I understand up to 150 words – I don’t talk.” What the bittersweet “Beginners” explores is that desire to talk, and to be heard, which seemingly spans age groups, generations, even species.