John Carney didn't make things easier for himself with the charming New York musical romance, Begin Again. It was eight years ago the Irish writer/director who melted our hearts with the lovely, soulful indie Once, a film that showed the restorative powers of love and music better than any in recent memory, possibly ever. But it was also something that came practically out of nowhere, shot on a shoestring and with no familiar faces (although Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova became quite famous afterward); the emotion pouring from their music was unforgettable. Begin Again is a more polished studio effort with much bigger stars, and yet it recaptures much of the magic that made Once so special.
The unlikely pair of Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley make beautiful music together as a pair who whose hearts have been ripped out by the industry they love. While the hard-scrabble Dublin streets of Once allowed Carney to indulge in this perfect world of musical purity where talent and heart are all that matters, the reality is something else entirely. This is the day of manufactured pop stars practically rolled off the studio conveyor belt, and those few who do breakout on their own largely do it outside of the system from the comfort of their own homes. So what good is an A&R man like Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo) in that kind of atmosphere? Not much good at all, it turns out. Having just been fired from the company he helped build, Dan is having the worst day ever when he shows up at a local bar to get wasted, a regular occurrence. It's open mic night and amidst the chatter and clanging of dinner plates is Greta (Knightly), a British girl with a soulful voice performing an original piece of music. There's a fantastic moment when Dan tunes everything out and envisions the potential of Greta's song backed by full orchestral accompaniment. And while Dan sees a light at the end of the tunnel, he's not the only one who's been chewed up by the big city.
Relying heavily on flashback we see the same scene from three different perspectives: one neutral, and others from Dan and Greta. This accounts for a large chunk of the first act and for a while it seems there won't be any moving forward. Greta's story has a bit more meat to it than Dan's as she deals with the heartaches brought on by sudden fame. Not her fame, mind you, but that of her ex-boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) who came over with her from the U.K. after one of his songs became a hit on a movie soundtrack. The two were once an inseparable creative pair, making music just for them to enjoy, but now he’s become a self-absorbed superstar. We can tell he's growing more self-involved by the amount of facial hair on his face. Seriously. Dumped and alone in New York City, Greta moves in with her enthusiastic musician friend Steve (James Corden, from the similarly-themed One Chance) and hits the club that fateful night.
Dan immediately tries to sign her and understandably she's a bit squeamish about the whole idea. Not only is Dan a drunk who doesn't have the financial means to sign her if he wanted to, but she didn't come to New York with plans of being a singer. She's a songwriter, and the person she wrote songs for just trampled all over heart. Of course he finally convinces her, otherwise this wouldn't be the crowd-pleasing film Carney has a certain knack for, and he lays out a plan to make her stand out from the masses. That plan consists of calling in some old favors and gathering a band, with Greta performing her music live at city landmarks, capturing the raw honest sound of New York. And boy is that music infectious, just as much of the film turns out to be. Unlike the songs in Once that creeped into your soul, remember the first time you heard "Falling Slowly", none of the music in Begin Again has quite that same impact. The tracks here, performed with surprising gusto by Knightley, are a catchy, enjoyable brand of radio-ready blues funk.
From there the film explores what was pointedly laid out in its original title, "Can A Song Save Your Life?", with Knightley and Ruffalo basically going through the same motions as Hansard and Irglova did before. Greta and Dan become close in the process of recording her album, including one great sequence where they take in the town while listening to music through a shared set of headphones. And soon we come to think that love is definitely in the air for these two, but this is John Carney and he loves to tease. Their situation is muddled by Dan's angry ex-wife (Catherine Keener, because that's what she does) and his rebellious daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) who desperately needs a change of wardrobe.
There's comfort to be taken in the cliched nature of each character's arc, aided by the rhythmic chemistry between Ruffalo and Knightley. Few can play frazzled burn-out with the sort of zen quality that Ruffalo has mastered, and Knightley's awkward beauty comes in handy as a character that has shied away from the spotlight. Does Begin Again seem a little bit like a pre-packaged romance? Sometimes yes, it does, and there's irony to be found in that considering the subject matter. But audiences will leave Begin Again with a smile on their faces and a few new songs to add to their playlist.