erik lundegaard

Beginners
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Beginners (2011)

WARNING: IT’S 2011. THIS IS WHAT THE SUN LOOKS LIKE. AND THE STARS. THIS IS THE PRESIDENT. AND THESE ARE THE SPOILERS.

“Beginners” is a smart, sad, ultimately affirmative film about a depressed, 38-year-old illustrator named Oliver (Ewan McGregor) struggling in a relationship with an actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent), just a few months after the death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who, at 75, had revealed to Oliver (and to the world) that he was gay.

It’s also a film that revealed my intolerances. Watching this gay father interact with his depressed son, I realized I have a problem with the depressed.

I have a particular problem with the indie-movie depressed. You look like Ewan McGregor, you have the talent that Oliver has—enough, apparently, to make a living—and you wind up in a relationship with someone who looks like Mélanie Laurent? Give us a smile already. Be like your father: be gay.

Hal came out a few months after the death of the mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller), a woman he’d been married to 44 years, and who, during her battle with cancer, ate nothing but French toast, watched Teletubbies, and “skipped back and forth in time,” according to Oliver in an early voiceover.

The film does this, too. We keep skipping between Oliver’s last years with his father and his first months with Anna. The former works beautifully. The latter? Eh.

How sad is that? You put two good-looking people together, you make them artistic, actress and illustrator, and the result is stifling. Here they are at her place. Here they are at his place. Here they are at in the stacks of an old bookstore. Can someone open a window already?

They begin well. After the death of his father, which plunges him into a depression he was always skirting the edges of, his friends drag him to a costume party, and he goes as Sigmund Freud. Good joke. There, he drinks and mock-analyzes another partygoer on the couch. Then Anna takes this partygoer’s place, dressed as I’m-not-quite-sure, and writing notes rather than talking. Apparently she has laryngitis. As her character or as herself? She kinda flirts with him and he kinda flirts back. We never know what initially attracts her—he’s a fairly quiet guy in heavy beard and gray hair, after all—but later in the evening he removes the beard and looks like Ewan McGregor. So: Jackpot.

What do they do together as a couple? I hardly remember. After the party, in his car, he says he’ll go where she points, and they wind up driving on a sidewalk and laughing. This scene is reiterated later in the movie, but previously in his life, when he was a child and his mother told him she’d drive where he pointed. The movie does this a few times. We get a sense of how past relationships, particularly with our parents, inform present life. The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past, as Faulkner said.

But then it’s old bedrooms and old bookstores for these two. He’s passive, she barely talks. The laryngitis was hers. There’s something almost silent-film comedienne about Anna, intentional, I assume, but it plays like an affectation rather than a means to knowledge or insight. Their relationship is mostly silence and a kind of silent dread over ... the past? The inevitable breakup they see coming? They each seem to be holding their breath, out of love, or out of being stifled by love, and part of it feels real but it’s never particularly interesting. I guess I’m a snob of dialogue. I wanted them to say something.

Hal does. Hal, finally himself after 75 years of lies, lives. He’s part of a community now, and there are movie nights and Los Angeles Pride meetings and fireworks. He meets young men, who aren’t interested in him, in clubs; but then one is, Andy (Goran Visnjic), who seems odd with his outré behavior and Javier-Bardem-in-“No-Country-for-Old-Men” haircut, and for his fixation with those old men, for whom this country is no country. But he’s deeper and more forthright than we imagine. He comes through in the end. He reveals himself to be meaningful.

Oliver watches it all. He’s a good watcher. Many of us are. But we need something worthwhile to watch: Hal living, Hal dying, Hal hiding from Andy and his friends that he’s dying. Christopher Plummer is amazing here, an early lead in the best supporting actor race. The details of Hal’s slow walk toward death are evocative. Here’s Oliver organizing Hal’s pills for him. Here he is shaving him. Now hospice is called. Here’s the bed in the middle of the living room. Here’s Hal finally allowed to be himself for a few shining moments.

Anna is lovely to watch but we never get a sense of who she is, and who she and Oliver are.

No shock, by the way, that writer-director Mike Mills based the father-son relationship on his own relationship with his father, who, yes, came out at 75 after the death of his mother, then died of cancer. Was there no woman, no girlfriend, no f-buddy he could base Anna on?

There’s a dog, too, a Jack Russell terrier named Arthur, who is given subtitled dialogue, and who seems to talk more than Anna does; and we’re given history lessons about Jack Russell terriers and the history of the homosexual movement in America, and it’s done with a kind of Wes Anderson deadpan, a kind of camera-center formality that worked.

Most of "Beginners" worked, really. I feel dickish for even raising criticisms, but they're imbedded within the film itself.

Oliver to Arthur, the dog: “Look, it’s lonely out here, so you better learn how to talk with me.” Back atcha, buddy.

Hal to Oliver, the son: “Just be happy about it, huh?” Amen.

—September 14, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard