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Some Thoughts On… Beginners (2010)

July 27, 2011

Let me begin by saying that I went in to Beginners with an open heart. Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical story of a man groping towards a sense of identity and a reliable source of happiness in the wake of parental death is pretty much where I have been living for the last twelve months. However, rather than seeing elements of my own experience in Mills’ gently affecting comedy-drama, I was struck only by the grinding mediocrity of his insights, the laziness of his exposition and the shameful over-reliance on art house narrative techniques to pad out a story that involves far too much hand-waving and not nearly enough heart-tugging or head-scratching.

Writer/director Mike Mills projects himself onto Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a professional illustrator who is struggling to put his life back together after the death of first his mother and then his father.

As Oliver cleans out his father’s house, he comes across a personal ad drawn up by his dad in the wake of his mother’s death, a personal ad written in hope of attracting some younger male lovers. Indeed, though Oliver’s parents Hal (Christopher Plummer) and Georgia (Mary Page Keller) were married for decades without a hint of either separation or divorce, Hal was actually gay. His wife buried, Hal comes out of the closet aged seventy-three and spends three years living the sort of life that he should have been living all along.  A life filled with sex, socialising, clubbing and political activism.

Oliver’s experiences nursing his father through grief, self-realisation and terminal illness are laid bare in a narrative that is inter-cut with scenes from Oliver’s present, a present in which he has embarked upon a relationship with a French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent). By interweaving elements from Oliver’s past and his present, the film slowly points out the similarities between Oliver’s life and that of his father:

Hal grew up at a time when being gay was treated as both a mental illness and a moral failing. In the hope of living something approaching a ‘normal’ life, Hal decided to marry a woman he could not love in the hope that happiness might come to him by osmosis.  We later see Hal repeating this pattern with his younger boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic), whose desire to sleep with other men clearly hurts the naturally monogamous Hal. Oliver, by contrast finds himself unwilling to make any concessions to the women he dates.  Easily trapped in love’s initial dizzying updraft, Oliver soon finds himself getting bored and restless with his relationships. Incapable of understanding why he should tolerate anything other than perfect happiness, Oliver sinks his relationships and winds up alone again and again. Beginners is essentially the story of Oliver’s realisation that happiness and love are born of compromise and realism rather than rare passion and emotional perfectionism. Neither of Hal’s relationships were perfect and yet he lived a happy life.  Oliver is unwilling to put up with anything short of absolute happiness and is unwilling to compromise or work at being happy and so he winds up being far more miserable and alone than a man who was gay in the 1950s.  In other words, Oliver is as spoiled and narcissistic as he is self-involved.  This is ultimately why the film fails to convince.

Beginners’ root problem is the fact that it really does not have very much to say.  The fact that Oliver is utterly self-involved is obvious in almost every beat of the film.  We can see it in the fact that the film’s most insightful comments emerge during Oliver’s one-sided conversations with his dog, we can see it in the fact that he initially falls for Anna because she literally cannot speak and we see it in the fact that Hal’s story is used largely as a prop for Oliver’s generic brand of soul-searching. Indeed, it turns out that when a gay man spends fifty years living a lie only to snatch a few years of happiness in the shadow of terminal cancer, it really is all about the straight guy. By choosing to focus not upon Hal’s story but upon what Oliver learns from Hal’s story, Beginners reduces the social history of an entire generation of gay men to the status of props in the on-going indulgence of a generation of white, middle-class straight people whose dull and shallow problems already form the backbone of the indie canon. Worse still is the fact that, despite plundering the lives of a generation of gay men, Mills still struggles to come up with anything to say.  Oliver begins the film as a sad, self-involved narcissist and he ends the film as a sad, self-involved narcissist without budging an inch or generating a single spark of insight in the process.

Aside from the dubious treatment of homosexuality and the general lack of insight into the human condition, what most annoys about Beginners are its rare flashes of complexity. For example, Mills occasionally transports us beyond the two interweaving narratives to Oliver’s relationship with his mother. Intriguingly, despite Hal and Georgia’s marriage coming at Georgia’s insistence, Georgia is presented as the victim of Hal’s dishonesty.  Witty, wise and spunky in the best traditions of mid-century femininity, Georgia is endless lovely and this loveliness filters through into Oliver’s present in a decidedly Oedipal way. Indeed, while the foreground of the film suggests that Oliver’s unhappiness may be due to his similarity to his father, the film’s background subtly hints that Oliver’s failure to find love may be due to a lingering and yet intense sexual longing for his own mother. We see this in the way that Oliver’s seduction of Anna allows him to replay moments shared with his mother and we see it in the fact that Oliver meets Anna at a costume party where he is dressed as Sigmund Freud. The truth of Oliver’s emotional dysfunction is further hinted at in the fact that, when Oliver first meets Anna, she is dressed as a man.  Sadly, while Beginners may hint at some real emotional complexity, the hints are never connected to anything in the film’s foreground and so remain nothing more than free-floating suggestions that could just as easily be the product of a starving critical brain in desperate search of insight.

Mills’ potential as a writer/director is also evident in his willingness to play tricks with the genre.  For example, one of the most popular genre templates for romantic comedies is the story of a depressed man who learns to love again thanks to the life-changing ministrations of a quirky female love interest whose vivacity cuts straight through his emotional exile.  These quirky female love interests are generally known as Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Initially, Beginners suggests that Anna may well be such a dream girl but, as the film progresses, it rapidly becomes clear that Anna is nothing of the sort.  In fact, she is just as moody and self-involved as Oliver. In fact, if Beginners can be said to possess a Manic Pixie then the Manic Pixie in question is Andy, Hal’s Manic Pixie Dream Boy. However, while it is undeniably good news that American film has progressed to the point where it can happily transform heterosexual clichés into homosexual ones, it is frustrating to note that none of Wills’ genre-bending exertions serve any wider purpose.

Aside from being frustrating and stupid, Beginners is also a crushingly boring film.  Billed as a comedy-drama, Beginners contains few laughs and little drama. What drama it does have is stretched to breaking point by the sort of long, drawn-out silences and palate-cleansing interludes that one would normally associate with art house film. Recent months have seen numerous critics rallying to the cause of cinematic boredom as a response to the on-rushing tide of cinematic spectacle that is the Hollywood blockbuster. Critics routinely cite the work of directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Kelly Reichardt and Andrei Tarkovsky as proof that you can make beautiful films which, because of their lack of plot, are boring. However, while I agree that slow-paced films in which nothing happens can be superb, I do feel the need to point out that none of Ozu, Reichardt or Tarkovsky’s films are actually boring, they simply rely upon a suite of visual and atmospheric storytelling techniques that require lengthy pauses to allow the audience to assimilate what they have seen.  Beginners is a boring film, not because it contains numerous pauses, but because it lacks the sort of visual, atmospheric and emotional complexity that requires careful assimilation and reflection. While Tarkovsky’s pauses allow us to realise the depth of his thinking, Wills’ pauses reveal only a lack of insight and a series of wasted opportunities.

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