[Screen It]


(2014) (Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley) (R)

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Drama: A down-on-his-luck record label exec thinks he's found the next big thing in a songwriter whose famous singer boyfriend has recently dumped her.
Dan Mulligan (MARK RUFFALO) was once a hot and upcoming New York City record label exec who discovered and nurtured the talents of the likes of recording artist Trouble Gum (CEELO GREEN). Since then, however, he's become disillusioned with the music biz to the point that one of his executives, Saul (MOS DEF), is essentially firing him from his job as head of the company. It's not much better for Dan on the home front, what with being divorced from ex-wife Miriam (CATHERINE KEENER) and mostly estranged from their teenage daughter, Violet (HAILEE STEINFELD).

One drunken night he believes he might have found his salvation in Gretta (KEIRA KNIGHTLEY), a lovely young woman who reluctantly plays one of her songs during a set by her musician friend, Steve (JAMES CORDEN). While green on the stage, Gretta isn't a stranger to the music world, what with having moved to New York with her pop star boyfriend, Dave Kohl (ADAM LEVINE). With his success came his straying, and now she's on her own, much like Dan. He eventually convinces her to let him manage her fledgling music career, all while he tries to reconnect with his family and she decides what to do about Dave.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
And you don't mess around with Jim

"You Don't Mess Around With Jim" -- Jim Croce

As a guy who goes by that name, I can appreciate the sentiment, but I'm not here to write about warnings regarding the Jameses among us. Instead, I'd like to add an amendment to those lyrics, albeit not in lyrical form. I'd just like to say if you're making a movie about making art -- where the protagonist laments about the sad state of such art, and where you include previously released famous and memorable samples as part of the package -- you don't include new offerings unless they're just as classy or memorable, and in the same league as the predecessors.

Yet, that's exactly what writer/director John Carney has done with and inside "Begin Again," his latest romantic musical drama. His first one, 2006's charming and moving "Once," was one of my favorite films from that year. Beyond delighting me and lots of art house movie aficionados, its signature song, "Falling Slowly," won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Following that, Carney co-wrote and co-directed the little seen "Zonad," but the filmmaker now returns to the genre and format that earned him his most acclaim. Like "Once," the film revolves around those involved in the music biz and a budding but unlikely related romance between the leads.

Those here are embodied by Mark Ruffalo, playing a once famous and successful but now disillusioned and seemingly washed up record producer, and Keira Knightley playing the songwriter girlfriend to an increasingly popular pop star (Adam Levine from the real-life band "Maroon 5").

The music comes from her (as well as a bit from the heavily tattooed co-judge/coach on "The Voice"), and while it's okay and might garner some new fans, it's hardly memorable. Even if my life depended on it, I'd be hard pressed to recall any of the lyrics, let alone hum any of the melodies. That's unlike Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life" or Frank Sinatra's "Luck be a Lady Tonight" that are both featured in the film.

And for a movie about making music, that's somewhat of a substantial issue and golden missed opportunity. None of it's anywhere in the ballpark of screech-worthiness, and for the most the songs are pleasant enough. Yet, considering the cumulative mediocrity of it all, it's, well, fairly remarkable if not outright disappointing.

As far as the drama is concerned, it fares a bit better, even if, ironically enough, both the story and its subjects don't exactly elicit thoughts of novelty. And the reason that works better than the music mainly stems from the presence of and performances by the leads.

I've always really like Ruffalo and especially Knightley as performers and they bring just the right touches to their characters not only to make them seem human, but also able to engage most viewers and draw empathetic reactions from most everyone.

In short, you feel what they do and that goes a long way in making their characters and the overall film approachable. Supporting performances from the likes of Levine (making his big screen debut) as Knightley's boyfriend who cheats on her, Catherine Keener as Ruffalo's ex-wife, and Hailee Steinfeld as their emotionally lost teen daughter are solid across the board.

And while the music might be fairly unremarkable (despite Knightley's lovely singing voice), the scenes of the group performing and recording those tunes (mostly out in the city, guerilla style) are entertaining enough to bump the tunes up a few points in terms of being enjoyable.

While it might be time for Carney to hum his way on over to a genre outside of the "let's make music" romantic drama genre, "Begin Again" is a decent enough entry to earn an artistic recommendation. It rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed June 4, 2014 / Posted July 2, 2014

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