“Begin Again” stars Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in a can’t-miss setup to make a romance-starved moviegoer salivate. Which makes it all the more painful when it does miss. Written and directed by Irish filmmaker John Carney, who charmed the knickers off audiences with the winsome 2007 musical “Once,” this follow-up feels almost like a sequel, except with a bigger budget, better clothes and — here’s the bad news — worse music.
Ruffalo plays Dan, a record label executive who hasn’t broken an act in seven years, has pawned his Grammy Awards and split from his wife and teenage daughter (Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld). He’s in the final throes of a potentially suicidal alcoholic bender when he hears the dulcet tones of Gretta (Knightley), a doe-eyed Brit strumming her guitar in a downtown New York dive.
Gretta is unsteady and a shy, halting performer, but Dan immediately hears a possible hit in her folky tune. He begins to visualize a musical arrangement, which Carney stages with a magical flourish as invisible players begin to play instruments onstage. It’s an endearing scene, and as Dan and Gretta strike up a business relationship and then a friendship, it turns out to anticipate a story that is suffused with warmth and heart, even at its most fantastical. When Dan can’t persuade his former partner (played with silky authority by Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def) to sign Gretta, they go the DIY route, calling in favors from an assortment of session cats and music students, pulling a pair of pantyhose over a microphone, hitting the streets of New York and making their own recording with a laptop and a dream.
“Once” fans will recognize the loose, improvisatory ethos of “Begin Again” and even part of the story line: Gretta’s relationship with her American boyfriend, David (portrayed with spot-on tone and soaring singing chops by Adam Levine), bears more than a passing resemblance to that of “Once” stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. But unlike Carney’s previous film, which was filled with bravura moments and music that meshed seamlessly with the story’s busker-in-Dublin setting, “Begin Again” feels more contrived and highly processed, its songs — most written by Gregg Alexander with a series of collaborators — coming off as twee, wispy and instantly forgettable.
A film about the transcendent powers of music should at least have good music, but even the catalogue choices in “Begin Again” are weirdly lifeless, including the cuts that Dan plays for Gretta during a painfully forced interlude while they traipse through Times Square. None of it rings true. But there are moments that do, such as a split-second glance Keener gives Ruffalo during a brief encounter in her upstairs bathroom and the looks Knightley and Levine exchange during a pivotal moment in his character’s career. (In addition to Keener and Bey, “Begin Again” is graced with a number of appealing supporting performances, including James Corden as Gretta’s affable British mate and a cameo from Cee Lo Green.)
Those are the times that “Begin Again” comes to palpable life and that make it pleasant and refreshingly open-hearted, even as it heads toward a predictable, only-in-the-movies climax. Ruffalo and Knightley may not generate white-hot chemistry, but they project an easy affability and don’t try to oversell their native charms. Knightley in particular exudes an Audrey Hepburn-like appeal in a vintage-inspired linen wardrobe that looks as if it was acquired on an all-expense buying binge starting at Madewell and ending in Manhattan’s hippest consignment shops. (Translation: I’ll take it all in size 10, thanks!)
The best part of “Begin Again” is Dan and Gretta’s relationship, which is animated by a palpable, unspoken attraction. Still, viewers are kept unsure as to how or where it will be resolved. Carney handles the ambiguous dynamic with care and creativity, avoiding “A Star Is Born” cliches while indulging in all the pleasures the familiar plot has to offer. “Begin Again” may not always swing, but it makes up for that in sincerity and a welcome willingness to ambush expectations.
★ ★ ½
(104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for obscenity.