Despite a stand-out performance from an old pro, Beginners keeps the audience at a distance.
Despite hitting the age of 81, it seems that nothing is slowing down Christopher Plummer. He still manages to find bold, distinctive roles that dodge the stereotypical casting for old film folk, from voicing heartbroken grouch Charles Muntz in Pixar’s Up, to appearing in the title role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
However, while Beginners seems to be yet another showcase for the octogenarian – here starring as Hal, a widower who, in his final years, admits to his family that he’s gay – it is in fact surprisingly slippery, and somewhat disappointing.
Beginners, the sophomore effort from Thumbsucker writer/director Mike Mills, focuses on the man’s son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), who subsequently has trouble coming to terms with his father’s death. Mills creates a psychological landscape, mildly Proustian in its associations, in which Oliver’s meanderings through the lives of both his parents fades into little glimpses of years prior. Meanwhile, in the present, he makes tentative moves towards his own emotional rehabilitation by courting a coquettish French actress (Mélanie Laurent).
As if to remind viewers of his own indie pedigree, Mills ties together these threads with a brooding narration from Oliver, illustrated with his own faux-naif sketches from a book called 'The History of Sadness', and slideshows providing historical context ("This is what pretty looked like in 1938!"). But these flashes of style are of a piece with the film as a whole: Beginners is too often superficial, unable to tease any insight out of its compelling central conceit.
Perhaps it’s telling that where Beginners finds its most comfortable configuration of complexity is in those flashbacks, where Oliver’s parents’ own idiosyncrasies rise above quirkiness. Mary Page Keller deserves more than the very minor role she has here, as a wife and mother bored out of her wits, with her fanciful, impulsive relationship with Oliver hinting at an internalised torment.
However, most delightful is Plummer. He revels in the camp of a character excitedly gobbling up a previously forbidden culture, but he especially shines when batting away the onset of cancer with a still-handsome grin, without masking the mortality behind it.
It is yet another prime late-period performance from the star. If only Mills had given us a more straightforward look at this man’s life, instead of merely examining the remains.
A strong cast, working with an uncommon concept.
Beginners drones along in a state of melancholic navel-gazing.
Despite a stand-out performance from an old pro, it keeps the audience at a distance.