'Begin Again': What the Critics Are Saying

11:38 AM PST 07/08/2014 by Marion Kirkpatrick
The Weinstein Company
Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo star in "Once" director John Carney's newest modern musical, "Begin Again."

'Once' director John Carney heads to New York with Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, Cee Lo Green and Mos Def.

Begin Again, writer-director John Carney’s most recent film, revisits the emotional connection created through music as showcased in his 2006 indie hit Once. But this time, Carney's strumming with a bigger budget and corresponding big-name cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, Cee Lo Green and Mos Def.

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The modern-day music movie follows a chance encounter between washed-up music executive Dan (Ruffalo) and bright-eyed singer-songwriter Greta (Knightley). What results is a promising collaboration and mutual transformation for the star-crossed talents throughout New York City.

Originally titled Can a Song Save Your Life?, the film debuted in 2013 at the Toronto Film Festival to a warm reception, and performed nicely for The Weinstein Co. after expanding into 175 theaters last week, grossing $1.7 million for its five days limited opening (June 27) for a domestic total of $1.9 million and posting of the best location averages of the holiday stretch.

Read what the top critics are saying about Begin Again:

The Hollywood Reporter's critic David Rooney notes in his review that "Carney demonstrates that the disarming emotional candor and intimacy of the earlier film was no fluke. He is a wholesale believer in the healing power of music, as the too-literal title suggests. The director also has a profound respect for the way music is created, manifested here in a rejection of processed pop and its accompanying marketing concerns, and an embrace of back-to-basics purity."

Despite its earnestness, many moments in the film still seem contrived, says Rooney. "Carney’s screenplay is not exactly robust, and the film feels slightly padded with mini montages. A scene in which Dan and Greta share playlists doesn’t add much, especially since their choices are somewhat pedestrian for two music buffs. But there’s a nice ambling quality to the story as Dan cleans up his act and gets closer to his family. … The film’s quiet pleasures creep up on you."

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Many critics agree, for a movie about music, many of the film’s arrangements are passable at best.

The New York TimesA.O. Scott says that in comparison to Once, the film "is a bit like the disappointing, overly produced follow-up to a new band’s breakthrough album. A large part of the problem is that the music, which is supposed to provide heart, soul and artistic bona fides, ranges from passable to terrible." Additionally, "the New York locations are undeniably real, yet they still somehow look as artificial as studio back-lot sets," and "the loose, off-kilter compositions and ragged editing rhythms don’t quite camouflage the way nearly every dramatic beat and line of dialogue lands squarely on the nose. Despite the unaffected acting, the characters are less individuals than axioms, and their relationships are carefully graphed to yield predictable emotional results." 

Kenneth Turan of the  Los Angeles Times calls Begin Again "an insistent puppy of a movie, just about willing you to like it. And while it certainly has appeal," that appeal is somewhat limited. He continues, "For while both films are unapologetic fairy tales centering on the power of music to transform relationships, not to mention entire lives, Begin Again demonstrates that revisiting thematically similar material with bigger stars and a higher gloss runs the risk of losing the qualities that made the idea so effective in the first place." Of the leads, "Knightley and Ruffalo are certainly much more accomplished actors … but they are coasting on their personas here more than acting, and their star quality makes the numerous calculated contrivances of Begin Again's story more obvious and harder to swallow."

The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday says the title has good intentions, saying, "A film about the transcendent powers of music should at least have good music, but even the catalogue choices in Begin Again are weirdly lifeless. … None of it rings true. But there are moments that do."

The Boston Globe's Ty Burr notes, "The movie seems willfully perverse, as though Carney had taken out everything that felt fresh and non-Hollywood from Once and replaced it with time-tested cliche. Begin Again is pleasantly predictable if you’re in an undemanding mood. If you’re not, it’s unbearable, like hearing a treasured folk song given a Hot 97 makeover."

Twitter: @mrnkrkptrck

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