Mike Mills’s second feature (following the hyped but beyond underwhelming Thumbsucker) was written and directed as a tribute to his father, who, after his wife’s death had admitted his homosexuality in his mid-seventies, much to his son’s immense surprise, before dying himself a few years later. So Mills casts eminently elegant Christopher Plummer as his dad, cuddly Ewan McGregor as himself, and Inglorious Basterds it-girl Mélanie Laurent as his beautiful French fling (but perhaps more) and calls it a day. There’s no denying the skill and attractiveness of this cast, but perhaps that professionalism and charm is the problem: once translated to screen, Mills’s life (which holds a potentially intriguing age-reversed coming out scenario) becomes the stuff of movie-land. Ultimately, Mills seems to have less interest in finding out what made his late father tick than going through the motions of another idiosyncratic American indie comedy-drama about an emotionally closed off young man who just needs to open his heart to the right woman.
Beginners’ tone is set from the start: we’re in melancholy-comic territory, especially clear from McGregor’s character Oliver’s Umberto D.-like relationship with his Jack Russell terrier Arthur. Arthur is granted the gift of subtitles, so we can see what he’s thinking, or at least what Oliver believes him to be thinking. It’s a cloying gag that nevertheless elicited unending squeals of delight and approving “awwws” from a couple of audience members. Unfortunately, little Arthur turns out to be as cute and one-note as Plummer’s fresh out-of-the-closet father, whose one-track-mind devotion to gay causes in his dotage (gay book club, gay movie night, political letter writing, copies of The Advocate in the mail, a bunch of nameless fabulous new friends) overtakes the character completely. While it’s lovely to see Plummer coming into his own and living life honestly, even with so little time left (he is soon diagnosed with cancer), he is seen by his son and us as something of an enigma, an icon of pride, but also a befuddling stranger.
Which is sweet and inoffensive, yet imagine what a fascinating film Beginners might have been if he had written a film from the father’s point of view. Instead, we get endless scenes of Oliver scampering around with the woman who will change it all, an actress (Laurent) whom he meets cute at a costume party. With her adorable neuroses and gamine eyes, she’s preposterously perfect, a conceit—but she’s infinitely preferable to Plummer’s barely there much younger love interest, played by a mite mincy Goran Visnjic with a mop of bad hair, a thoroughly insecure screwball paranoid about straight male judgment of him. After Plummer dies, he accuses Oliver of not visiting him—as viewers we may also wonder why Mills didn’t pay him enough attention.
Naturally, there’s the kernel of a terrific character study here, but Mills—whose Thumbsucker proved his terminal case of the cutes—has focused on the wrong guy. McGregor is a thoroughly warm screen presence and a fount of charm as always, but Oliver is someone we’ve seen many times in movies; and did he really have to be a clever cartoonist who in his downtime sprays cool graffiti all around Los Angeles? And did Mills have to intersperse little visually adorable philosophical asides about American life from the fifties to now (especially since, as is the case with so many films these days, he’s cast British actors in his lead roles)? And, come on, did the film’s two lovebirds have to go roller-skating in the Biltmore Hotel lobby before collapsing on their bed in giggles? —Michael Koresky