Begin Again is a pleasant romance that focuses on a washed up music producer and his newest discovery, a singer songwriter who isn't sure if she wants to be a professional. Gretta is hesitant, you see, because her ex-boyfriend sold his soul (and stole her songs) in an effort to become successful, and that pushed her initial bitterness towards the music industry to an all time high. But Dan sees something in her, and he really needs this - he needs a hit, yes, but he also needs a reason to stop drinking himself to death - and so he convinces her to give it a try. And wouldn't you know, the longer they work together, the closer they get...
Since a movie about music lives and dies by it's songs, it's easy to give Begin Again a pass; all of "Gretta's" songs are well chosen. But if you stripped out all of the (admittedly effective) music montages, you'd have a pretty meager movie. Dan and Gretta are likeable people, and Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightly are solid performers, but these characters are people we've seen on the silver screen over and over again. This isn't an unpleasant film - but it might be unnecessary.
Honestly, the film's amicableness kind of works against it. There are a few times when Gretta and Dan get into philosophical disagreements which I wanted to see get played out, but Begin Again quickly lets them settle back into friendliness and then never mentions it again. For example, when Dan first tries to sign Gretta he is up front about the changes she'll need to make to become successful. A lot of the items on his list are superficial - they are little changes intended to make her look sexier. She immediately and pointedly objects: what does looking good have to do with sounding good? Dan is too afraid of losing his only potential client to push the issue, so he drops it pretty quickly.
To me that scene was a big missed opportunity. I think about the interplay between music and marketing all of the time, and so I would have really enjoyed watching these two diametrically opposed people go at it. If that conversation was done well it would touch on any number of complex issues: feminism versus sexism, cynicism versus naivete, polished professionalism versus raw talent. But no, that debate doesn't happen - the movie has to cut to another montage set to dreamy music.
Of course, if the movie had indulged that debate it could have made it worse; while the version of that dialogue that only exists in my head is full of real cultural insight, I can also imagine it getting very banal very quickly if it was written badly. Since a perfectly fine film is to be preferred over a frustrating one, the decision to be demur over trying to draw blood might have been wise. But I'm not even asking for this film to go out on a limb and make bold new proclamations or say something philosophically deep. All I'm asking is for it to allow these characters to have a bit more bite. Every time the film side steps a landmine it misses a chance for these nearly cliche characters to become more specific and real.
That said, you'd have to have a heart of stone to still be mad at this movie by it's end. The closing montage really worked a number on me, and I'm pretty cynical about these things. But once the music has faded away what is a montage worth? A well made point is something that lingers in your mind, and a well drawn character is someone you might think back on fondly, but a song disappears into the ether the instant it's done. Of course, you could replay again if you wanted to - but I don't think there's enough meat on Begin Again's bones for me to begin watching it again.