It was going to be a tough task to capture the same charm that Once had, but with writer/director John Carney’s latest effort, Begin Again, he is able to use some of the same tropes that made his other musical work so well (two leads floating through life, the use of the city as a character, and a whimsical song selection). Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley don’t have that normal people quality that Glen Hansard and Marketa Irgolva had, but they do their best to create two characters that you can root for and enjoy spending time with.
Begin Again starts much like Once with a song. Greta (Knightley) is forced on stage by her friend and plays alone with a guitar. The room doesn’t seem to take notice of her until the end when the camera pans across the front to a smiling Dan (Mark Ruffalo). While odd and creepy, the smile from Dan is a direct result of his day so far. A rocky relationship with his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), the loss of his job with longtime partner Saul (Mos Def), and the crippling of his life had sent Dan to that bar to drink and forget, but as he tells Great afterwards, he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and her song brought him back.
The two strike up a partnership to create an album to sell to Saul. The kick is that the album will be recorded around New York City, a different area for each song. With the help of artist Troublegum (Cee Lo Green), the two set up a band to perform the tunes and begin to get the album together.
Begin Again isn’t anything revolutionary or new, but neither was Once. The latter was so good because of how real the characters felt and how much you rooted for them to succeed, even when they screwed up. Begin Again keeps this same quality and is able to develop two likable leads in Ruffalo and Knightley. Both come across as more damaged than Carney’s previous film, but that makes for a more satisfying character arc.
What worked for me again was the song list, which included more original works by Carney and friend Glen Hansard. Knightley turned out to be a solid singer and performer and the always talented Adam Levine shows up as her ex-boyfriend to add a few more tunes to the list. Levine does a solid job as the ex-boyfriend mainly due to playing a persona that is almost a commentary on how people view him.
Carney has crafted another charming story with Begin Again that includes a new album of great songs with a story that uses the city (much like Dublin in Once) to its advantage. The story sometimes steers into cliche areas, but the actors are able to bring a sincerity to it that makes it more than just another rom-com. And like with the other films by Carney, his ability to create a subtle musical is an incredible talent.