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2 reviews, 4 user ratings

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by Brett Gallman

"Another 2011 film goes to the dogs, but in a good way."
4 stars

“Beginners” has one of my favorite characters in a movie from 2011, and it isn’t even human. Instead, I’m referring to Arthur, Ewan McGregor’s canine companion that actually gets a few instances of subtitled dialogue. Usually, a review that starts with the praise of a dog’s performance signals a snarky opening, but in this case, it just shows how on point and well done “Beginners” is: even the dog is an interesting character in this jovial comedy about sadness (which is somehow a more wonderfully simple paradox than it sounds).

He accompanies Oliver (McGregor), a man in his late 30s who is still trying to come to terms with his father’s (Christopher Plummer) recent death. Actually, that’s not the hard part--it’s more apt to say that he’s still trying to reconcile himself with what happened in the later years of his father's life, as, after the death of his wife, he came out as a gay man and took a younger man for a lover. This forces Oliver to reconsider his childhood, particularly the relationship between his parents; all of this hangs like a cloud over his own burgeoning relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress that he meets at a costume party (where he’s dressed as Sigmund Freud--one of the film’s many great visual gags).

Despite all of the middle age malaise and identity crisis here, “Beginners” is a remarkably light and cheerful film that crisscrosses between past and present to stitch together a compelling tapestry of characters. At the center is Oliver, who is figuring all of this out along with us as he muses upon all of the various images and experiences that have made him into the man that he is. He often shows us what the various years of this collective journey looked like (from his parents’ birth in the 30s to the present action) in a series of montages that litter the screen with images, almost like a visual representation of a Beatnik poem (and there is indeed an obvious reference to Alan Ginsberg at one point).

Like Ginsberg’s “Howl,” “Beginners” is somehow about carving out a personal identity in spite of all the public forces attempting to shape you into their mold. Oliver is keenly aware of this, having discovered that his parents’ marriage was a bit of a sham, a union that was only forged because his father thought it would “cure” his homosexuality. Of course, the last few years of his father’s life provide the alternate model that Oliver should be following, if only he’d allow himself too. He’s one of those somewhat hopeless, despondent types that you’ve seen in movies before--the kind of guy who can’t let himself be happy for whatever reason. He’s more interesting than most, though, due to McGregor’s fine performance and the script, which paints a detailed portrait of both his childhood and adulthood.

McGregor leads the charge in an impressive ensemble; his character is marked by sadness, but he’s far from mopey and does a fine job of suppressing any sort of resentment he might have towards his father (both for being somewhat absent during his childhood and his sudden life change). Plummer’s turn in the role makes that difficult anyway, as he’s delightfully resilient after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, which just means “it’s been through 3 other stages.” The other parent here is the mother who died a few years before the main action, but we see her as an unusually progressive 60s housewife via flashbacks, where she’s played by Mary Page Keller. Even with limited screen time, Keller makes an impression as an oddball maternal figure that sometimes feels more like a playmate to young Oliver.

Adult Oliver puts on a good face, but not one that’s good enough to fool Anna, who is the mysterious beauty who strolls into his life. Laurent is luminous--her character also has baggage and heartache, but she almost refuses to be anything but sprightly. The big conflict here centers around her happiness; since Oliver can’t allow himself to be happy, he assumes all will eventually go wrong between the two. At two points his dog (via those subtitles) asks him “are we married yet?” Initially, it’s a playful question, but it carries more ominous implications the second time when Oliver’s neurosis eventually forces him to disturb the universe.

And while there’s never any doubt how the resulting conflict will play out, it hardly matters; this is a familiar story well told by Mills’s witty touch. Spanning generations and sexuality, “Beginners” is supple and reaffirming, something that could most succinctly be called “nice,” which is exactly what you’d expect from a movie with a talking dog.

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originally posted: 03/09/12 14:59:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/26/15 David H. Charming and very poignant! 5 stars
5/17/12 Geraldine Beautiful and heartbreaking. 5 stars
1/03/12 mr.mike Not bad. plummer will be tough to beat at awards time. 4 stars
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  03-Jun-2011 (R)
  DVD: 15-Nov-2011


  DVD: 15-Nov-2011

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