Despite its title, Beginners is rather advanced for a comedy, employing a flashback-heavy, almost stream-of-consciousness narrative structure. Part love story, part meditation on death, part gay rights treatise, it’s ultimately too ambitious for its own good.
Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a 38-year-old bachelor with a clinical tendency to sabotage romantic relationships before they have a chance to get serious. When his mother (Mary Page Keller) dies, his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), announces that he’s taken a male lover (Goran Visnjic) and that he was gay during the entirety of his marriage. But before he has a chance to fully embrace his sexuality, he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer and dies.
We learn all this in the first few minutes in an extended montage/monologue that’s a bit like beginning the movie with its own theatrical trailer.
The elliptical time structure allows writer/director Mike Mills to sketch a number of fine comedic scenes in miniature – like Oliver’s confessionals with his adopted Jack Russell terrier, whose thoughts are subtitled – but it also cheats emotionally, positioning Oliver’s blubbering at his father’s deathbed at the end of the movie, thus treating it as a moment of catharsis instead of the beginning of an extended period of numb grief.
A more crucial mistake is Mills’ attempt to place Hal’s closeted marriage and eventual coming out in the greater context of the gay rights movement, complete with stock footage of politician/gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Like the “history of sadness” cartoon timeline McGregor’s graphic designer unsuccessfully attempts to create, it isn’t successfully resolved within the arc of the narrative. A far more convincing statement of sexual orientation equality is just seeing the straight Oliver interact with Hal and his gay friends, or the touching moment when Oliver and Hal’s young lover embrace, each discarding his own sexual hang-ups in an act of pure human compassion.
If only the rest of the movie were as natural and quirkily original as the love story that develops between Oliver and Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress whose peripatetic lifestyle has left her equally noncommittal. Neither talks very much (when they meet, she has laryngitis and communicates with pad and pencil) but when they do converse, the dialogue is crisply humorous and occasionally profound without turning sententious.
Hal’s fate is a foregone conclusion, but Mills makes us genuinely care what happens to Oliver and Anna: a pair of loners whose only hope for salvation is each other.
Beginners is currently playing at the Palace 9 in South Burlington.