It is particularly impressive that in Mike Mills’ latest film Beginners talented leading man Ewan McGregor turns in his best work since 2001’s Moulin Rouge! yet manages to be outdone by the great Christopher Plummer. As father and son the two actors light up the screen with dynamic chemistry and an immensely sympathetic relationship. Plummer and McGregor’s scenes together serve as an anchor of realism amidst the film’s sea of artistic-intellectual ponderings and charming, but random flights of fancy. In a performance that exudes enthusiasm and expectations, the 81-year old Plummer manages to come across feeling a decade younger than the 40-year old McGregor.
Beginners is an autobiographical story based on the Mills’ father who came out as a gay man after 40-years of marriage and was shortly thereafter diagnosed with terminal cancer. Graphic designer turned director Mills assembles the film in a non-linear narrative that seems to order itself similar to the human memory – in vignettes of varying length. While the movie almost overdoes it with sugary sweetness, the scenes with Plummer are so painfully authentic that the world of the characters never comes across too idealized.
McGregor plays Oliver, a depressed graphic designer who despite having an expansive friend group, seems detached from all other human beings. We see the reason for this detachment through flashbacks to his childhood where his parents were obviously unhappy. Oliver meets the similarly detached French actress Anna, played by Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), at a party and the two embark on a gradual relationship. The pair meet when Anna has laryngitis and they communicate the first night only with pen and paper. They end their first rendezvous with a sexless sleepover as Anna writes “can we just sleep?”
This beginning of a relationship feels too idealized in a world where every character suffers some sort of mental insecurity. Oliver has depression, Anna fears any sort of commitment, and even Arthur, the subtitled Jack Russell Terrier has abandonment issues. These issues are not brought to our attention enough to give Oliver and Anna’s relationship the stakes it needed and therefore made it less interesting. There never felt like a genuine impediment for them to be together which made their relationship feel like little more than an opportunity for exposition and character history.
The relationship between Oliver’s father, Hal, and his mother, Georgia, on the other hand, was quite refreshingly different. Through flashbacks we see the effects that Hal’s lifestyle had on his mother. Georgia, masterfully played by Mary Page Keller, responds to her neglect by coming up with inventive ways to pretend murder her son, which a young Oliver plays right along with. Every time she is refused a kiss, the effect on both characters and audience is devastating and it was refreshing that Oliver’s father did not get a free pass. The first relationship that a human observes is that of their father and mother and these telling flashbacks reveal why adult Oliver is so set on detachment.
However, this past is not allowed to destroy our sympathy for Hal thanks in large part to the performance of Christopher Plummer. Plummer exudes such a likeable boyish quality like a young man discovering who he is for the very first time. After his coming out he begins a relationship with a Brazilian gymnast named Andy and Hal’s new found love is the most genuine and heartbreaking connection that we see in the film. When visited in the hospital he loudly declares “Andy!” like a child whose father has just come home from a long day of work and it can only be described as absolutely adorable.
McGregor and Laurent sustain their scenes well enough, but when the film is over you may wish you could have spent more time with the great Christopher Plummer.
Bottom Line: Beginners is almost obnoxiously sweet, but also remarkably genuine.