Begin Again is director John Carney's blatant attempt to recapture the magic of his 2006 surprise hit Once, and if it seems churlish to hold this shiny new product's feet to that previous film's lo-fi flame, blame Carney for rubbing our noses in it.
If all Carney wanted was to make yet another lame Hollywood romantic comedy, no one would bother summoning the ghost of Once. Instead, he practically begs for the comparison, restaging his underground creation as prototypical genre glop, and only those uninitiated to Once will be able to regard Begin Again on those terms alone.
Carney may have gone into the film hoping to tell an uplifting musical story about a dreamer and a burnout reconciling artistic integrity and commercial success on the streets of New York, but the sugary dud he spit out is meta-Exhibit A for the argument that studio filmmaking is a creative deathtrap. In many respects, this slavish, American-ized knockoff is the spiritual opposite of Once — call it Never Again.
Everything fresh and original about Once has been recycled and sanitized, and Begin Again is broad and excessive where the former was charming and concise. The rumpled male lead (Mark Ruffalo) is now a struggling music executive desperate for one last chance at whatever; the mousy Czech songwriter has become a manic pixie nightmare played by Keira Knightley; and the only major actor in this musical who can actually sing is Adam Levine of Maroon 5 — and he can't act.
Despite all of its obvious concessions to box-office projections and itchy test audiences, Begin Again espouses some childishly self-defensive notions about "selling out." Naturally, all of the executives in this universe are portrayed as automatons, even when you can spot the script notes that their real-life counterparts forced into the picture. This is similar to the way that Hollywood blockbusters sell plastic toys and soft drinks by having their heroes shun commodification and compromise, and by turning every villain into a corporate shark.
Perhaps Carney has simply lost his touch. One example of a sequence that works in theory but not on screen comes when Ruffalo's rumpled producer Dan hears Knightley's jilted songwriter Greta perform for the first time. Although she only has an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, Ruffalo begins to flesh out the song in his head, and we see the unmanned instruments lying about the stage come to life around her. But instead of literalizing the live-wire alchemy between a song and an arrangement, the scene just comes off as bad puppetry.
The overproduction in this sequence also highlights a major problem with the film's music: Namely, that it's quite poor.
Although the film hinges on a philosophical disconnect between the business side of the music industry and the burning desire of artistic creation, there is barely a difference between the album-oriented rock slop the movie rejects and the AOR slop it embraces. When Knightley complains that one of her songs is "buried in production," the line is delivered completely without irony, even though every song here rests in that same sonic graveyard.
Making his dramatic debut, Levine is a wooden disaster, and yet he comes off little worse than the Academy Award-nominated veterans who surround him. Knightley is unnecessarily grim, and although she is credited for all of Greta's vocal performances, her processors and overdubbers fail to get their due. Ruffalo is a very good actor within a limited range, and thus probably more dependent than most performers on strong material, but Carney's cornball script does him few favors.
Begin Again has an irresistible concept and all of the necessary elements to make it work, but instead of trusting that, Carney overloads the film with artifice and plot. By the time the film's pushy charm starts to kick in, with Dan recording Greta in front of various New York City landmarks, it is far too late. Begin Again feels like it should work but never does, and in that sense the film is a lot like one of those God-awful Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jam bands, where talented musicians team up to create a tuneless cacophony.