There were bits and pieces of this film that I really enjoyed, but the rest of it was a significant let down. The only things I knew going into watching it were that Christopher Plummer must have given an amazing performance to beat my favourite competitor, Jonah Hill, and that it must be awesome if only for the sake of Ewan McGregor being the main character.
It was not awesome.
After reading reviews, I wanted very much for the film to be a success. It is an adaptation of the life of the director, Mike Mills, whose father came out to him shortly before he passed away while Mills had yet to direct his first film.
Hal Fields (Plummer), a 75 year old man whose wife passed recently has finally come out to his son and wants to experience life as a homosexual after playing straight for forty plus years. Back in the 50s, being a homosexual was considered a mental illness, so Georgia (Mary Page Keller) offered to “fix” him by getting married. They loved each other, but it was different, and now that Oliver (McGregor) knows the truth, he looks back on his mom’s bitterness and his dad’s half hearted goodbye-kisses in a different light.
Watching his dad explore, dress differently, learn new phrases, and experience having a younger boyfriend is not enough for poor Oliver, but the devastating news of stage four cancer clinches it. Oliver, who is surprisingly supportive and unquestioningly encouraging of his dad’s new lifestyle choices, is constantly at his dad’s side through his last years.
If that was the entire plot, it would have possibly won me over. Beginners employs one of my favourite techniques–a non-linear timeline. However, in this case, I feel as if it was used poorly. The real time events are a few months after Hal has passed. Oliver’s character is fairly one note, and even when he finds himself in a new relationship with a Jewish French girl, the cutesie bits and supposed personal emotional dysfunctions aren’t very believable or romantic. It isn’t exactly presented as a relationship that you root for or grow emotionally attached to–it’s just there, an unnecessary timeline that doesn’t lend to the story of Hal, but rather distracts. This is a hard thing to say about McGregor, who is one of the great actors of our time, but unfortunately I was very disappointed, not in his acting but in the flat character he was given.
My favourite character by far was Arthur, Hal’s precious Jack Russell Terrier. He is very needy, but his relationship with Oliver and others is very real. Oliver speaks to him as if he were human and you can almost hear Arthur speaking back through his expressive eyebrows. He goes everywhere with Oliver because if he is left alone he begins crying immediately. After Hal passes, he is a constant companion to Oliver, and is present in most scenes after the death.
To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend Beginners for most people. The dog was cute, and for that I might be convinced to watch the film again. Plummer’s performance was of course very good, but it has been suggested that he may have won for his body of work and not necessarily for this film alone. This controversial topic alone might be inspiration enough for you to see the film and judge for yourself.