I'm one of the few people who really liked - or even bothered to see - graphic designer/music video director Mike Mills's feature debut Thumbsucker. Though it was a little self-conscious, I think it showed promise for the filmmaker. So I was somewhat disappointed that his sophomore effort, the semiautobiographical Beginners, toned down the imaginative visuals in exchange for that murky, underlit "anti-aesthetic" found in Spike Jonze movies.
Beginners does have its share of quirk, which will divide some audiences (cute dog that speaks only in subtitles, anyone?) but which I accepted and enjoyed. The story is simplistic, and is perhaps the weakest aspect of the movie: Oliver, a 38-year-old illustrator (Ewan McGregor) who has walked away from all his past relationships, falls tentatively in love with a charming French actress (Inglourious Basterds' Melanie Laurent). Meanwhile, he reminisces about his father (Christopher Plummer), who recently passed away after living only the final four years of his life as an openly gay man.
That's it, really.
As there's not much drama in waiting to see if mopey old Oliver will finally be able to commit to his new girlfriend, all we have to savor are Mills' poignant asides about life as we know it and the fine performances by Plummer and Laurent. I don't think Plummer has ever been less than good, and much of this underrated actor's work, from Star Trek VI to The Insider, is downright excellent. And although Laurent has been cast as another so-called "manic pixie dream girl" - the stereotypical kooky cutie whose only purpose in life is to bring her sad sack leading man out of his shell (e.g., Natalie Portman in Garden State) - she's a strong enough actress to bring a real sense of life to her character. And at least I can understand why she's willing to endure Oliver's insecurities: he's handsome, he's talented, and he has a nice house and a cute Jack Russell terrier (both inherited from his father).
As for McGregor, he's one of those actors - like Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana - who are sensational in their breakout roles (Trainspotting, in McGregor's case) but after Hollywood success deliver almost nothing but earnest, serviceable, and dreadfully generic performances. And his American accent has never been convincing. With the combination of his bland character and Mills's tension-free storyline, Beginners is no classic. But that doesn't negate the many sweet and thoughtful moments that fill the film.