BEGINNERS – The Review

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Fathers’ Day was last Sunday, but it’s not too late to enjoy the latest entry in a long line of cinematic father/son stories. Like many other films, this twosome bonds as the son navigates through adulthood and the dad is near the end of his life’s voyage. But this story involves a surprising revelation from pop which sheds a new light on many incidents from their past.

Oliver ( Ewan McGregor ) is a single, thirty something, hang-dog California graphic artist. Besides dwelling on his past failed romantic relationships, he must deal with the home and effects ( including a very cute Jack Russell terrier ) of his recently deceased father, Hal ( Christopher Plummer ). In flashbacks we witness Hal coming out to his son shortly after his wife’s death. Oliver is stunned to hear his seventy-something father declare, “I’m gay.” after decades of marriage. In deeper flashbacks to Oliver’s adolescence we meet his eccentric, non-conformist mother ( Mary Page Keller). In these memories Hal is a faceless, shadowy figure always leaving the house as Mom stares at him with concern. Once he’s single and out of the closet Hal is re-energized. He buys a new wardrobe, places personal ads, joins a men’s choral group, hits the dance clubs, and gets a much younger boyfriend, Andy ( Goran Visnjic ). Unfortunately cancer arrives to curtail his new lust for life. Hal asks Oliver not to tell anyone and becomes more determined to not let the disease keep him from his new interests. In the present day Oliver meets a beautiful French actress, Anna ( Melanie Laurent ) at a party. She’s staying in town for a short time, but wants to act on her attraction to Oliver. As he tries to open up to his new love, Oliver has to put Hal’s estate in order while reflecting on the close bond the two shared in Hal’s final days.

Writer/director Mike Mills has made a very engaging-and personal- film. He’s told interviewers that his own father came out to him. Mills uses lots of interesting visual touches while occasionally veering into whimsically cute territory. The photo montages ( In 1969 this was beauty. This was the president ) are used too frequently and the close-ups of the dog with subtitles expressing his thoughts ( Go after her! ) seem forced. I did not enjoy the scenes of McGregor and his office mates indulging in some late night graffiti. It’s not cool, it’s vandalism. Speaking of McGregor, he does his best to make this mopey artist interesting, but often comes off as whiney and self absorbed. I was looking forward to seeing Laurent ( from INGLOURIOUS  BASTERDS ) in an English language role, but she and McGregor generate very little chemistry on screen. Also, Visnjic’s  child-like character almost becomes a male bimbo parody.

In spite of my problems with the film I recommend seeing  BEGINNERS for the inspired acting by Christopher Plummer. He lights up the screen while portraying Hal’s infectious joy. Hard to believe that he’s been working in movies and television for nearly sixty years. Now past leading man roles, Plummer’s been giving one one supporting character performance after another in the last few years. Let’s hope the members of the Academy remember this great work at the end of the year. He makes you believe that you’re never too old to be a beginner.

Overall Rating: Three and a Half Out of Five Stars



Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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