No filmmaker has managed to reproduce the balance of self-indulgent neurosis and self-deprecatory irony that elevates Annie Hall and Manhattan into the pantheon of the greatest romantic comedies, not even Woody Allen. Neither does Mike Mills, though his Beginners adds a dash of New Wave style, and a dose of genuine pathos, to a decidedly Allenish romp.
UNFORGETTABLE Director Mike Mills flirts with the twee (and with Woody Allen), but creates a funny, tragic original.
True, the pathos verges at times on sentimentality, which is understandable given the loaded autobiographical material. Never mind that Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) has already lost his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), but his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) has just dropped dead, too. And that only four years after he had shocked his son by announcing that he was gay and was entering an accelerated gay lifestyle to make up for lost time. Lots of material for the therapist there. No wonder Oliver's parents had a chilly relationship during their half century of marriage, recalled by Oliver in recurrent flashbacks of cold goodbye kisses. Maybe that explains why Oliver has no capacity for love or intimacy himself.
Except, that is, with Arthur (Cosmo), his father's surviving Jack Russell terrier, who, it turns out, can communicate (via subtitles) with his new owner, offering his observations and advice, kind of like Bogie in Play It Again Sam. Arthur wags his tail enthusiastically when Oliver bumps into Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party. In a bit of Allenish name-dropping, Oliver is disguised as Freud, Anna in drag as Julius Rosenberg. Arthur's thought balloon reads: "Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now."
That's meeting cute, and then some. As it turns out, nothing drastic happens nor are they drowned in darkness, but Mills does evoke a mood of melancholy and poignance, and suggests with rueful fatalism how the burden of memory jostles with the delight of falling in love. Some of this might seem derivative. For example, he peppers his bliss montages with a soundtrack of vintage ragtime, blues, and jazz familiar from nearly every Allen movie. And the backgrounds of the two lovebirds are inversions of those in Annie Hall, with Anna being Jewish and Oliver a WASP (okay, he's one-quarter Jewish), which means they're both neurotic, and though she's kooky, she's also depressed.
But Mills brings a lot more into the mix that is his own, and not just the story and the verbalizing dog. His persona Oliver provides a wry and gnomic voiceover narrative, and illustrates his observations on key periods of time — such as 1938, when his parents were born, 1955, when they were married, and 2003, when the "present day" story takes place — with Godardian flurries of pop-cultural imagery. "This," he says, "is what happiness (or sadness, or marriage, or pets, et al.) looked like in (fill in the date)." The effect should be twee, but is in fact funny and tragic.
Also, though Laurent is at least as winsome as Diane Keaton, neither McGregor nor Plummer is Woody Allen. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but their nuanced performances banish such comparisons and transform the film into something fresh. As is the case with secondary characters, such as Goran Visnjic as Hal's lover, Andy. He's self-consciously, and stereotypically, defensive about being gay, but also irrepressibly lovable and goofy.
Maybe the magic touch, though, is Arthur the dog. "He remembers me!" Andy says with heart-rending joy as he embraces this vestige of his dead lover. It's one of many scenes that are hard to forget.