You know when a boy and girl meet, hit it off, but keep the relationship platonic — and it’s sweet and memorable forever? This practically never happens in the movies. The last time it did (as far I can recall) was in “Once” back in 2006, directed by Ireland’s John Carney.
“Once,” made on a budget of €100,000, told the tale of a musician couple who meet, spend an intense week together making a demo CD and then part ways. The film was a megahit, and the songs the couple played lingered in the mind for a long time after the credits rolled. Carney went on to direct a few box-office duds after “Once,” but he has rekindled the fire with his new film.
“Begin Again” is a whole different vehicle though, with a Hollywood budget, star wattage and the much bigger stage of Manhattan. But Carney keeps the charm intact and, as with “Once,” the couple in the story are united by their love for music rather than personal or sexual issues — and we know how refreshing that can be. In fact, sex in the movies has become so in-your-face and ubiquitous nowadays, it’s kind of hard to get excited.
Keira Knightley, playing Gretta, appears in an array of vintage outfits with a sloppy ponytail, is earnest, adorable and seems more relaxed than she’s been in a long time. Gretta is a songwriter who comes to New York from the U.K. with her musician boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). He has just landed a deal with a major label, and Gretta is “tagging along,” but pretty soon Dave succumbs to the seductive temptations of Manhattan, leaving Gretta alone and stranded.
On open-mic night at an East Village bar, Gretta goes on stage and catches the eyes (and ears) of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a music executive who has fallen out of grace with both the industry and his elitist wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener). Even his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) thinks he kind of sucks. Dan sees real talent in Gretta and wants to make an album with her, even though he has no cash to rent a studio, hire a band or even pay for his beers.
It’s hard to make a choice between the crumpled Ruffalo, who comes off like an unwashed elf with a misshapen jacket, and the deglammed Knightley, who actually has a lovely singing voice. Dan and Gretta’s scenes together are superb, defined by an astringent sweetness that could be fouled by a single kiss, let alone outright sexuality. Yet the chemistry is genuine, made precious by the knowledge that though their love is real and present, they’d rather pour that into the music instead of a relationship that most likely would just not work.
All this unfolds during a summer in New York, and Carney captures the city’s vibes with the same precision that he displays portraying the crackling current of energy between Dan and Gretta.
“Begin Again” is also an ode to the way the city affects and inspires artists to work at their craft and keep doing their thing, no matter what else is happening in their lives.
If you could put your arms around this movie, you would.