After he is fired from the record company he founded, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) drowns his sorrows at the same bar where singer songwriter Greta (Kiera Knightley) happens to be performing. Promising he can make her a star, Dan convinces Greta to allow him to help make her music dreams come true.
Although the trailer for Begin Again makes the film look like a cheap sequel to Music and Lyrics, the film is directed by the man who brought us Once – John Carney – so there is a little more depth and warmth to the story than we may expect.
Mark Ruffalo continues his talent for playing the warm and engaging every man with his role as Dan. Although he starts off a little like Hank Moody from Californication, it becomes clear that this dejected borderline alcoholic has a heart of gold and a true talent for spotting talent. Ruffalo makes Dan a character we can relate to, and one that the audience roots for. Kiera Knightley is the most relaxed, warm and spontaneous she has been on screen in a long time; as well as this, her singing voice is truly lovely, and she brings the damaged character of Greta to life, adding in a little fire for good measure. The chemistry between the two leads is gentle and sweet, and it is clear that there is a respect and affection between the pair.
James Corden as Steve is funny and sweet, without being brash or over the top. Corden’s scenes feel improvised, which serves to add to the warmth on the screen. Catherine Keener does not exactly stretch herself as Dan’s ex-wife Miriam, but playing the relaxed but caring Mum is something that she has become very good at, so of course she does well. Hailee Steinfeld’s role as Dan’s daughter Violet is a little underwritten, meaning that her presence is more to be a catalyst than anything else. Adam Levine does remarkably well as Greta’s ex-boyfriend Dave and, although he does not have a huge amount to do, he captures the essence of a good singer turned arrogant incredibly well.
John Carney’s screenplay feels as though it was inspired by Ruffalo’s character in 13 Going on 30, and using the streets of New York as a recording studio for Greta and her record not only makes the city part of the songs, but makes the songs feel as though they are something that you could reach out and touch – not unlike Matt’s photos in 13 Going on 30. It seems as though Carney has realised the mistakes made with his other music film, and sets out to avoid the pitfalls made in Once. As well as this, there are choices made about the relationships in the film – most notably between Dan and Greta – that could easily have gone in the opposite direction, but it seems that Carney steered away from the easy solution for his characters.
As director, Carney allows the chemistry and warmth between the leads to ebb and flow, and grow into something that is joyful to watch. It is clear that Knightley is having the time of her life, and sings her little heart out, and this makes watching the songs being recorded something rather special. In terms of pacing though, the film often falls into troughs that it struggles to get out of, and invariably does so by using music. Yes, the songs are great, but they are not always enough to keep the film moving.
In all, Begin Again is a sweet and warm tale, expertly told by Ruffalo and Knightley. The two sparkle together on screen, and Knightley’s singing voice is truly lovely. Carney proves that Once is something that could definitely be improved upon, even though the pacing issues sometimes drag the film to a crawl. Still, it makes a change to leave the cinema with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.