In the past I’ve bemoaned the sheer volume of openly autobiographical indie movies written by young twenty-something screenwriters who have not actually lived lives that are worth writing about. Some titles that come to mind include (500) Days of Summer, The Wackness, and The Squid and the Whale. Some of those movies were better made than others, but they all had the same problem at their core: they were about people who spent the entire film whining even though they didn’t have any real problems. In a recent Saturday Night Live sketch Keenan Thomson (in the guise of Tyler Perry) dubbed these “white people problems movies” and used the film Adventureland, “where a young man is sad because he has a job,” as the prototypical example. Well Keenan I’ve found a new prototypical example of this genre for you, it’s called Beginners, and it’s about a wealthy man who is sad because he has a beautiful French girlfriend two or three years after his seventy five year old father came out of the closet.
The unhappy white person in this film is named Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist who has just met a beautiful young woman named Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a party and the two are really hitting it off. The problem is that Oliver is still grieving over his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who died months ago of lung cancer. Hal’s death came only a few years after the death of his wife Georgia (played in flashbacks by Mary Page Keller), and shortly after the death of his wife Hal revealed that all through their marriage he had in fact been a closeted gay man. This puts Oliver into a state of existential crisis in which he needs to reconsider his childhood will continue to haunt him later as he tries to start a relationship with Anna.
Oliver is of course cool with the fact that his father is gay… so cool with it that he fixates on the fact for years and lets it dominate his own life. He’s not exactly angry at his father for living a lie, his mother was apparently “in” on the conspiracy the whole time and otherwise his father’s sexuality would seem to have little or no impact on his life, but that doesn’t stop him from moping about the situation for the running time of the movie. I wanted to reach into the screen, smack him, and shout “get over it already.” It doesn’t help that his relationship with Anna is not overly interesting in and of itself and wouldn’t be able to carry a movie on its own. Anna is not overly manic, but she does serve little or no purpose in the film except to be a dream girl for Oliver and to be the catalyst for his needlessly conflicted feelings about relationships.
Another sign that this is going to be a “white people problems movie” is that it employs a lot of “quirky” and “hip” bits of gimmicky periodically throughout the film. To writer/director Mike Mills’ credit we are spared the animated bits and indie rock soundtrack that are typical of movies like this, but we still get an irksome voice over, needless segments in which we are given random still images on the screen accompanied by said voice over, and most obnoxiously of all a “cute” running gag in which Oliver “talks” to his Jack Russell Terrier and the dog “talks” back to him via subtitles. The film lacks the usual Wes Anderson-biting color scheme and to some extent it feels like Mills didn’t actually want to indulge in the silliness I described, but then he went and did it anyway because research shows that such techniques are needed in order to sell these bad autobiographic movies about depressed twenty and thirty somethings. To be fair, a lot of these techniques are more offensive because they are clichés than because they are inherently offensive storytelling devices, but clichés they are and I’m just sick of them. Had this movie come out in 2003 (which is incidentally the year it takes place for some reason) it might have seemed somewhat fresh, but in 2011 it’s just old hat.
So what is worth seeing about the film? Mostly just the performances. Christopher Plummer is award worthy as the father, constructing a very believable character who finds a degree of happiness late in life after finally having the burden of closet lifted. His sometimes eccentric behavior could have been cartoonish had it not been handled so well. Ewan McGregor also does a pretty good job in the film, which isn’t easy given that he has a pretty thankless role to work with. While the film itself is not very good and is in many ways the personification of a lot of annoying trends, it isn’t quite bad enough to make these performances a complete waste; in fact I’d say the good acting goes a long way towards making the film as watchable as it is. Still, good performances are never going to be enough to make a bad movie good, and that certainly isn’t the case here.
**1/2 out of Four