Joyous start found at the end of life
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 10, 2011
You know you’re in the hands of a superbly gifted filmmaker when he can pull off a talking dog.
In fact, the wise Jack Russell terrier whose telepathic pronouncements punctuate the action like so many Zen koans is just one of myriad pleasures in Mike Mills’s tender, sharply observed movie.
The story of a middle-aged man who learns that his father is gay, only to lose him to cancer a few years later, “Beginners” traces the effect of both cataclysms on the younger man’s nascent relationship with a fetching French actress. Along the way, Mills, who wrote the script largely from events in his own life, addresses issues of history, culture, Los Angeles’s graffiti subculture and, yes, telepathic canines with deft, perceptive finesse.
The film opens with a montage of stills — an empty house, a full closet and a jumbled medicine cabinet — a familiar tableau to anyone who has lost a parent. In this case, that parent is Hal (Christopher Plummer), who, as his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) explains in a voiceover, came out of the closet with a flamboyant vengeance after his longtime wife died, taking a younger lover and diving into Southern California gay culture (“I don’t want to be just theoretically gay,” Hal explains cheerfully.)
Jumping around in time — from flashbacks of growing up in a house where so much went unspoken to his father’s coming out to just before his death — the movie focuses on Oliver’s efforts to untangle how his parents’ marriage informed his own fears of commitment. This is brought into even sharper relief when he meets an actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) soon after Hal dies.
Oliver, who, like Mills himself, works as a graphic designer for rock bands, thinks most of his issues can be summed up nicely in one motto: “My personality was created by someone else and all I got was this stupid T-shirt.”
That kind of fatalism could come off as intolerably twee, but when it’s processed through Mills’s unfussy writing, even the most self-pitying musings seem fresh and funny. That lucidity extends to Mills’s bold, crisp visual style: “Beginners” looks fantastic, with every scene seemingly rooted in the filmmaker’s real life, from Hal’s Neutra-designed aerie, full of exotic textiles and carefully curated objets, to the striped sweater Oliver wears like a comforting talisman.
Of course, even the most gifted filmmaker needs the right men to fill the clothes, and in Plummer and McGregor, Mills has hit the jackpot. Not only do they look and behave as if they could actually be related, but each brings equal parts relish and restraint to his role, with Plummer possessing all the tremulous joie de vivre of the newly hatched, and McGregor bringing deceptively subtle dynamism to the act of simply observing the events swirling around him.
Sometimes that means observing his dad’s dog, Arthur, who has a penchant for sending Oliver mental messages such as “Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now.” If that sounds just too cute, take it from the most cynical of curmudgeonly critics: It works.
Even though “Beginners” entails weighty end-of-life issues, it’s kept aloft by such grace notes of pure whimsy, like when Oliver and Anna suddenly roller skate through the rococo halls of L.A.’s Biltmore Hotel. That scene possesses the elemental charm of Charlie Chaplin at his most winsome, made all the more so by actors who have similar knacks for physical performances (and great faces).
Happy, sad. Personal, universal. Heavy, light. “Beginners” shatters lots of false dichotomies, finding joy in the gray area where even life’s most contradictory forces coexist to form a coherent whole. In mining his own life for inspiration, Mills has created an exuberant, infectious testament to the power of letting go and diving in. “Beginners” may be the perfect summer movie, ideal for the season of taking plunges.
Contains profanity and some sexual content.