“Begin Again” (2014) 3.5 / 5 stars - At an open mic night in a laid back New York City pub, a 30-something Brit, Steve (James Corden), asks his friend to play a song. Greta (Keira Knightley) - while sitting on a nearby couch with the audience - quietly refuses, but after much badgering, she reluctantly trudges on stage.
Right away, we discover life isn’t breaking well for Greta, and she addresses the audience by saying, “So, this is a new song for anyone whose ever been alone in the city.”
She then breaks into a beautiful soft ballad reminiscent of classic Lisa Loeb and opens with, “So you find yourself at the subway with your world in a bag by your side.”
This moment thoroughly captivates everyone in the movie audience, but the patrons on screen seem disinterested at best, except for one person, Dan (Mark Ruffalo).
Dan sees what everyone in the movie theatre sees and hears and much more.
He is a down-on-his-luck record executive - with a destructive alcohol problem and just lost his job - but wants to make records with Greta with the emphatic passion of a parched corn field begging for a couple drops of rain.
These two lost souls might make music together.
A record financed on a shoe-string budget.
With no cash to pay any backup musicians, they will need to hire a ragtag bunch who will work for - basically - free.
If this plot feels a little familiar, you probably saw the remarkable 2006 Irish musical, “Once”.
“Once” writer/director John Carney is back writing and directing this film with his welcomed and frank bohemian style.
Instead of Dublin, New York City is his canvas, and this time, all eyes are on Knightley, and the camera loves her.
Knightley’s Greta is vulnerable, sweet, broken-hearted, but owns a bit of a determined-streak.
Making music - with Dan as her producer - could be the medicine to mend her broken dreams.
To my surprise, Knightley definitely owns genuine musical gifts and delivers very appealing melodies in the form of six songs on the film’s soundtrack.
The stronger tracks are “A Step You Can’t Take Back”, “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” and “Lost Stars”, and this critic plans on purchasing the “Begin Again” album in the very near future.
Levine fills a sizable role in the movie and - from an acting perspective - performs pretty well in his feature film debut.
Of course, his strength is his musical abilities and nails his version of “Lost Stars”.
About half of the songs are truly memorable, but some of the others don’t hold up as well.
The narrative seems to run a bit long too.
At 1hour 44 minutes, a nifty pair of an editor’s scissors might have served the film with one less song and a few less minutes of Levine’s and Knightley’s back and forth.
In addition, taking a step back from “Begin Again”, one really notices the similarities with Carney’s “Once” are rather striking.
I sat in my theater seat and easily made mental checkmarks of the two films‘ parallels.
On the other hand, this movie’s spirt is strong.
Its good intentions and Knightley’s performance make up for any sort of “Once 2: NYC” perceptions.
This isn’t a retread.
“Begin Again” is stands on its own.
Carney’s film might not be a perfect journey, but when you find yourself on a subway with your world in a bag by your side, you’ll hit some bumps on the road to recovery.