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Glitter and buried gold: Beginners



Beginners (R)

Kimball's Peak Three

Watching writer-director Mike Mills adorn, and finally suffocate, his sophomore feature film is like watching a child go a little too crazy with the glitter on an art project.

Mills' story is deceptively simple: Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, an introverted artist who pushes women and, increasingly, his own clients, far away. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has just come out as a gay man at age 75, and is shortly thereafter diagnosed with cancer. As Oliver attempts to bond with Hal, we flash forward to the aftermath of Hal's death, which includes Oliver's suddenly all-encompassing relationship with Anna, a French-American actress played by Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds). As their relationship progresses, we flash back to Hal's final days, which include a boyfriend (Goran Visnjic) and an active role in the local gay community. Meanwhile, Oliver flails at work as he turns an album-cover assignment into a grand statement on happiness.

OK, maybe it's not so simple. But it should be, and that's where Mills goes glitter-happy. Oliver's voice-over isn't enough; Mills also injects color cards and sequences of vintage photos and employs three scorers to plink out preciousness. And then the dog (yes, the dog) gets his own subtitles.

All of this might have been offset by the bravura acting — Plummer and McGregor are wonderful — if not for Laurent's exhaustingly pixie-like portrayal of Anna. Sure, she's beautiful, but a great director can find unexpected ways to wield her power. Mills, despite his music-video credentials, isn't yet that director.

Part of the disappointment is that Mills lived this story. He based it on his father's late coming out, and he did graphic design on albums for the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth and more. This is obviously deeply personal material, which makes you wonder why he clouded it with indie confetti. It's the kind of "look at me" indulgence that most directors get out of their system with their debut, and Mills' first feature, Thumbsucker, had plenty of it. He should have outgrown it before telling something this close to his heart. The soul is there, but it's drowning in glitter.

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Director: Mike Mills

Writer: Mike Mills

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer, Goran Visnjic, Bill Oberst Jr., Mary Page Keller, China Shavers, Kai Lennox, Jodi Long and Catherine McGoohan

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