Melancholy, funny, shrewd and life-affirming, Beginners is, at its best, a beautiful American film about loss, gains, ends and beginnings. It does at times, especially after a while, slip into lugubriousness, which is easy enough to do with so much dying and death decking the plot, and the unremitting idealization of all its major characters is regrettable; but writer-director Mike Mills has created something glowingly heartfelt—and somewhat autobiographical: Hal Fields, who after his wife’s death comes out as a gay man at 75, draws upon Mills’s own father. Mills, who previously made Thumbsucker (2005) in Beaverton, Oregon, has created another clever, compassionate film.
This one takes place in Los Angeles, mostly in flashbacks voiced-over by graphic artist Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), Hal’s warm, loving, relationship-challenged 38-year-old son, who embarks on the project “The History of Sadness” as he copes with his father’s terminal cancer and, shadowed by his parents’ unhappy marriage, his guarded relationship with Anna, a French actress. Deepening the material’s autobiographical impression, Mills himself drew Oliver’s drawings in the film.
Oliver’s sensitive relationship with Arthur, his dad’s Russell terrier (for whom a scattering of subtitles provides a glimpse of his thoughts), is touching. (Thank goodness the dog doesn’t die!) It should be noted that Anna herself remains mute during the first phase of her relationship with Oliver (they meet at a party where Oliver is made-up to be Sigmund Freud), and the entire film is tranquil, quiet and gentle. Again, everyone is nice; even Andy, his young lover, doesn’t abandon Hal in his hours of need, although Andy also seeks out action elsewhere. Most agreeably, Andy also befriends Oliver absent any sexual design.
Perhaps the least convincing aspect of the film is Hal’s denial of his stage-four cancer. But, really, most everything is “off” in Christopher Plummer’s dreadful “performance” as Hal Fields—although nothing may prevent this untalented Plummer from winning the Oscar for his simplistic, sure-fire “acting.” Plummer has already won best supporting actor prizes from the Los Angeles film critics and the National Board of Review.
Beginners boasts a brilliant aspect of its script: accompanied by representative snapshots, incisive, pithy descriptions of different times in American history that intersect with moments in the lives of Hal and Georgia Fields and, both as a young boy and a man, their son. This contextual material includes social, cultural and political matter. (I had no idea, for instance, that gay rights activism began in earnest in the U.S. in the mid-1950s.) Otherwise, the script is excellent—at its best, some of the best comedy writing in American film this side of Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983). But it is the film’s other outstanding achievement that positively floored me. About Thumbsucker I suggested that the film was better written than visually realized; but in the interim Mills has turned into an authentic visual artist. Both indoors and out, he finds rich, evocative images that project the souls of Oliver and Anna, their loneliness, their seesawing despair and hopefulness, their tentative love. When it comes to corridors, such as in Anna’s hotel, this may be the most impressive American film since Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Mills’s third eye, Danish-born color cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, contributes diffuse, astoundingly haunting work that deepens our understanding of the motivations compelling Oliver’s flashbacks. This is good news; I think we’ve all had enough of flashbacks that function merely as a narrative device.
At the last, Mills gives us a The Graduate-type ending (1967), but one that replaces Mike Nichols’ smirk and mean-spirited condescension with Oliver and Anna’s forward-looking courage and love.
And, yes, I fell in love with Arthur. And so will you.
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