Begin Again is the long awaited follow-up musical from Carney. It is strikingly similar to Once; with the synopsis even saying, “….what happens when lost souls meet and make beautiful music together.” It too is a tale of indie musicians who play their songs throughout the film. It’s essentially a spiritual sequel in the vain of The Hangover II, with the same concept but in a different city. The simple charms of Dublin are replaced by bustling New York City. Relatable characters struggling through life are replaced by semi-struggling but wealthy Americans. The authentic, rustic texture is replaced with glossy high definition sheen.
The basic premise of Begin Again is that Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a down on his luck former music executive. He wanders into a bar and sees Greta (Keira Knightley) play at an open mic. It’s magical for him and he pursues recording her, even though he no longer has a label to record with. Greta is lonely and desperate as well having just left her newly famous boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5). Dan and Greta decide to make an album themselves and record outdoors throughout New York City using whatever money they have and Dan’s former music connections. Alongside Dan and Greta’s kinship is the remnant of Dan’s former marriage by which he has a child and Greta’s former relationship which ended literally the day before she met Dan. The real heart of the film is Knightley whose chemistry with Levine and Ruffalo is kinetic and engaging. Scenes without Knightley are fairly dull and lacking her human touch.
As the film proceeds, it becomes clear that it follows a very similar path to Once, and each change feels like a downgrade. The setting is the film’s most glaring failure, as its use of New York City is bland and uninspired. There is nothing unique or remarkable in the way Carney shows New York City. I rolled my eyes as Ruffalo and Knightley romantically listen to an iPod in the middle of Times Square. Believe me, I’ve tried to listen to music when Times Square is busy; you can’t hear a thing even at full blast, certainly not with the specificity and detail a musician or producer would desire. Is this really that important? No, however it is emblematic of an ironic falsehood with which much of this film exists.
Since the broader premise of the film is getting away from the evil music studio and producing a record independently, the irony is painful; this film falls flat on its face because of its irritating Hollywood sheen. It’s polished and dull, like a pop record gone wrong. What worked so well for Carney in the past was his characters’ ordinariness. Begin Again feels like a slap in the face to see a newer, weaker iteration of the last film; it feels like Once but with famous actors. The construction of this film subverts its freakin’ message! Worse, the songs just aren’t great. They are good, but not songs that you’ll rush to buy afterwards. The lone exception is Lost Stars, which brings the film somewhere true and even justifies its existence. Unlock the average schlock that came before it, this song really does validate the whole enterprise.
Unless you’re really desperate for something mildly enjoyable, don’t see this at the cinema. It loses the magical ordinariness of Once and replaces it with manicured, studio-style emotional cues that ring false. It’s not completely false however, and Lost Stars alone makes it worth seeing the film; maybe just wait until it’s on iTunes.