“Begin Again” stars Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in a can’t-miss setup to make a romance-starved moviegoer salivate. Which makes it all the more painful when it does miss.
Written and directed by Irish filmmaker John Carney, who charmed the knickers off audiences with the winsome 2007 musical “Once,” this follow-up feels almost like a sequel, except with a bigger budget, better clothes and – here’s the bad news – worse music.
Ruffalo plays Dan, a record label executive who hasn’t broken an act in seven years, has pawned his Grammy Awards and split from his wife and teenage daughter (Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld). He’s in the final throes of a potentially suicidal alcoholic bender when he hears the dulcet tones of Gretta (Knightley), a doe-eyed Brit strumming her guitar in a downtown New York dive.
Gretta is unsteady and a shy, halting performer, but Dan immediately hears a possible hit in her folky tune. He begins to visualize a musical arrangement, which Carney stages with a magical flourish as invisible players begin to play instruments onstage.
It’s an endearing scene, and as Dan and Gretta strike up a business relationship and then a friendship, it turns out to anticipate a story that is equally suffused with warmth and heart.
When Dan can’t persuade his former partner (played with silky authority by Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def) to sign Gretta, they go the DIY route, calling in favors from an assortment of session cats and music students, pulling a pair of pantyhose over a microphone, hitting the streets of New York and making their own recording with a laptop and a dream.
“Once” fans will recognize the loose, improvisatory ethos of “Begin Again” and even part of the story line: Gretta’s relationship with her American boyfriend, David (portrayed with spot-on tone and soaring singing chops by Adam Levine), bears more than a passing resemblance to that of “Once” stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
But unlike Carney’s previous film, which was filled with bravura moments and music that meshed seamlessly with the story’s busker-in-Dublin setting, “Begin Again” feels more contrived and highly processed, its songs – most written by Gregg Alexander with a series of collaborators – coming off as twee, wispy and instantly forgettable.
A film about the transcendent powers of music should at least have good music, but even the catalogue choices in “Begin Again” are weirdly lifeless, including the cuts that Dan plays for Gretta during a painfully forced interlude while they traipse through Times Square listening to “Luck Be a Lady.”