It is a damn shame indeed that Mark Ruffalo will be best remembered for his supporting role as a colossal green mass than as a dramatic actor. He has proven himself a steady leading man, and in the right situation, such as that of Begin Again, he can utilise his acting chops with meticulous detail. Our loss, not his. New York City is not just the city that never sleeps, it is also the state where drama lingers on every corner. So many creatives toiling away in coffee shops and restaurants, waiting for that big break. Begin Again is another ember of that bonfire. Some burn a tad brighter than others. This piece from John Carney is certainly a league above the rest.
Perhaps Begin Again would like the opportunity to begin again. It opens with James Corden, sat on stage with an acoustic guitar. He thankfully does not sing, and hands over the stage to Gretta James (Keira Knightley), a budding young songwriter. To make her musicianship likeable, Carney must adapt his camera and writing around not just her, but Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo) too. He is at a loss in his life. So is James. That’ll be the core of this material. Each is at an impasse, the crossroads creeping up on them. They will be forced into a choice sooner or later, but when their paths cross, that choice is seemingly made for them. One is spiralling out of control and has it all, the other desires a foot in the door of the industry this man is trying to crash on out of. The parallels are so obvious they work extraordinarily well, with the two established rather quickly, Begin Again can move onto its emotionally charged threads.
Mulligan’s self-destructive style ruins not just his life, but daughter Violet’s too. Hailee Steinfeld gives a solid supporting performance, the love for her father is only a minuscule amount bigger than her hate for his attitude and what he has become. He may be a shell of a man, burrowed away in the back of a bar, slurring his way through beer and bourbon, but it is the impact this has on his forgotten family that Begin Again brings to the centre at times. It is, at the end of the day, a narrative crutch that the film will rely on in the spottier, weaker moments. Carney at least has the sense to fill these moments with strong actors who can elevate the material beyond its simplistic, wrought story. Knightley and Ruffalo are on top form here, and Carney is careful to represent the two as good people, yet fractured and fearful. Their initial meeting, where James performs her single on stage alone, while Mulligan fills in the blanks with the instruments around her in his mind, is phenomenal. It is exceptionally creative, and the styling of which carries through the film nicely.
Begin Again will work not just for music lovers but for those out there who love the behind the scenes, trial and error style of music-making. Music is an inherently emotional medium. When it is adapted to film, it is often used as the backdrop to wider expansion. Characters who, without their passion for audio, would be nothing. Carney is no stranger to this. He did it with Once, again with Begin Again, and, by the sound of it, with Sing Street too. There is always room for those that wish to explore the struggling artist, it is just nice to see it portrayed with passion. Here are two performers that, had they leaned into their own strengths a bit more, would be collecting awards for timely dramas, rather than paychecks for measly supporting roles in big-budget products.