Mike Mills’ Beginners has a heart, probably, but it’s so submerged in paint-by-numbers hipsterism and lumbering mumblecore that it’s difficult to find the humanity. The problem is that there are good performances in this film, especially Christopher Plummer’s, but the characters are ancillary to Mills’ ticking off of hipster boxes.
Pretentiousness is a funny thing. There is a very, very thin line between something that is pleasantly idiosyncratic and something that is mind-numbingly affected. Crossing it is pure misfortune, as it means that the humanity and authenticity has moved out. Such is the case with this picture.
Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, an illustrator of some sort. The film covers three points in his life, starting with the revelation that his now-deceased father Hal (Plummer) is gay. The revelation is staggering because Oliver’s pop only just came out of the closet at the age of 75. Having been married to Georgia (Mary Page Keller) for over 35 years, Hal has the magic of having robbed his wife of a better life while he fiddled around on her. Maybe they had a special arrangement.
In any event, Oliver spends some time reflecting on his relationships with his parents. We go to his childhood and to time spent with his mother. Oliver also, in the closest thing to present day, meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress. He is besotted, but complications arise that force their relationship into some rather problematic terrain. Will Hal’s vibrancy for life influence Oliver to stay the course?
It’s hard to believe that Oliver is 38 years old. He doodles for a living and drowns himself in gloomy, cloying conceit. He has a Jack Russell terrier and talks to it, explaining the dog’s genetic origins on a park bench. The pooch sort of talks back through the magic of insufferable captions that viewers will either find endearing or irritating. When out with a friend, Oliver tags a few surfaces with sardonic graffiti.
That he’s matched with an equally affected cohort in Laurent’s Anna is hardly unexpected. They meet at a costume party (where else?) where Oliver’s brought his dog. Anna has laryngitis, which serves as a means of transportation for all sorts of chocolate-box contrivances. She has to write in a spiral notepad and calls him on the phone but can only “converse” by pushing the buttons so that he can hear the beeps.
A scene that clarifies the context of Beginners is when Anna and Oliver, along with a couple of friends and the dog, go out roller skating. A disagreeable-looking woman who works at the rink tells them they can’t have the dog inside. Anna starts complaining in French, while everyone else at the table acts correspondingly cross. A shot of the busybody restates how unappealing she is. The slab of cool kids rambles on until they leave with the roller skates. And yes, before you ask, they roller skate down a hallway and chuckle while Anna wears a hat.
The aforementioned scene is significant because it reveals where Mills’ heart is. Complete with stacks (and stacks) of meta-narrative ploys (how many times do we need to know who the president was during certain key events?) and yet more posing, Beginners tactlessly buries what could’ve been an interesting and poignant fiction about a son’s discovery and a father’s undying devotion to egotistic elation in heaps of hipster pseudo-cool. The self-awareness isn’t clever or handsomely fragrant; it serves no purpose but to advance a mood that winds up feeling ever more disdainful as the picture slogs on.