A movie that mocks artistic sellouts and then sells out itself is like a cop who chases a criminal before accepting a bribe to let him go. That’s “Begin Again,” which explores complex human problems before sweeping them all away like so many dust bunnies.
See if this plot sounds familiar: A female singer-songwriter from a foreign country is stuck in an unhappy romantic situation. She meets a scruffy, musically talented guy from her adopted country. Together, they forge an artistic partnership that’s fresh and satisfying to both, though they realize their relationship can never be more than temporary and professional.
Yes, it’s the plot of the 2006 hit “Once.” It’s also the plot of “Begin Again.” Both movies were written and directed by John Carney, who can be forgiven for not wanting to call the second one “I Know How to Use a Xerox Machine.”
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In this case, Gretta (Keira Knightley) comes from England to New York in the company of rising pop star Dave (Adam Levine). She feels doubly betrayed: He cheats on her sexually and turns her wispy ditties into power ballads that appeal to huge crowds but are no longer artistically pure.
She takes up with Dan (Mark Ruffalo), an older record company executive in disgrace. He’s an alcoholic who’s separated from his wife (Catherine Keener) and barely knows their daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). He plans to make Gretta a star by recording her al fresco all over New York, showing folks at his company he’s still on the cutting edge.
The movie insults musicians in numerous ways. First, it suggests that anyone who goes into the studio to create production numbers has lost all integrity. Second, it implies that songwriting is less important than singing: Gretta may become rich by writing Dave’s pop hits, but she’s only a triumph if her own recording sells.
Third, and most annoyingly, being a musician requires no special skill. Five elementary schoolers playing in the street become backup singers with perfect harmony on the spot. Violet, whom her own mother (a rock journalist) calls a mediocre guitarist, suddenly cuts loose with sizzling licks on Gretta’s song without tuning, rehearsing, reading the music or even hearing it first.
Ruffalo injects a little spark into his character, whose lack of self-awareness is monumental and irritating. (Why would Gretta be drawn to a guy who was drunk and rude when she met him?) Knightley has a humorous, quiet charm, though her wan, unsupported singing voice doesn’t convey much emotion.
The music recaptures some of the wistfulness and longing of Carney’s better film, and one song (“Lost Souls”) could even end up as an Oscar nominee. But “Begin Again” mainly reminds us that lightning only struck “Once.”