Beginners – review

Ewan McGregor stars in a charming, offbeat romantic comedy

The title of Mike Mills's 2005 feature, Thumbsucker, was packed with infantilism, yearning and retreat. There's plenty of all three in his new, sweet-natured romantic comedy of bad timing. It has something of Annie Hall in its nervous romance played out with montages, voiceovers and subtitle/translation gags, and some modified Anglo-Godardian riffs with still images, and a man, a woman and a dog forming their own band apart as they caper excitably around Los Angeles. For some, the quirk-level may be set too high and it is sometimes a little callow in its sophistication, yet that sophistication strikes me as real enough; it is a poignant, high-concept indie picture, and the proceedings are underwritten by a warm performance from Christopher Plummer.

Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a thirtysomething graphic artist who specialises in ironised cartoon images – a wan, passive-aggressive and weirdly unsatisfying kind of humour. Mills may conceivably have created this career identity for Oliver partly as a way to absorb or pre-empt objections that his own film-making style is like this. Oliver is trying to sell an elaborate cartoony foldout concept to a rock band who – entirely exasperated – want him only to design a simple cover for their new CD. (This is 2003.)

Oliver's father Hal (Plummer), a retired art historian and museum director, has just died of cancer at the age of 79. The opening scenes of the movie show Oliver glumly clearing out his father's house and nervously taking possession of his dad's beloved Jack Russell terrier, Arthur. Four years before that, Oliver's mother died of cancer, and it was at this point that his widower dad came out to his son, and to the world, as a gay man. He had been gay all his married life, Hal announces to Oliver. The son remembers these revelations in flashback, and remembers his father's entirely unembarrassed attitude and relaxed, enthusiastic embrace of the gay scene and of a new, non-exclusive gay lover Andy (Goran Visnjic). In further flashback scenes, reaching back into Oliver's lonely childhood, Mills shows us Oliver's relationship with his smart, unhappy and profoundly unfulfilled mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who suppressed her own Jewish identity to find success in America's Wasp world as ruthlessly as Hal had hidden his homosexuality. Now Oliver can see how the mannerisms of irony and wit that he has learned from his mother were habits of concealment, protective mannerisms, a style she had, consciously or not, cultivated to shrug off the humiliating knowledge of her husband's true self.

Just when poor Oliver is beginning to come to terms with how messed up he is, he encounters the stunningly beautiful Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a party. Tellingly, it is a fancy-dress party in which he is dressed as Freud, jokingly analysing other characters present, such as the Wicked Witch from Oz. Anna's obvious attraction to him looks miraculous. Is she a heaven-sent delivery from his unhappiness, or is he replicating his relationship with his mother? And has his father's belated, fleeting contentment – an old man who was truly alive for just four years, at the end of his life – destroyed his son's chance of happiness?

Oliver is rootless, aimless: we see him slumped joylessly in his strip-lit office creating his irritating cartoons, or haunting his late father's house (he has inherited his dad's goofy habit of saying "hello house!" into the silence) or in Anna's featureless hotel room. Only rarely do we see him in his own untidy apartment; trying to get Anna back to his place triggers a crucial intimacy crisis. There is something opaque and undemonstrative about Oliver, and McGregor portrays this blankness plausibly. In a way, Beginners is a rather literary movie, in which Oliver is a novelistic narrator figure, a figure who does the noticing and the remembering, but seems to be himself an unreadable presence.

This is where the movie slightly fails to engage – often, you feel like grabbing McGregor's Oliver by the shoulders and yelling: React! He does not get angry with his father for having condemned his mother to a life of denial and self-deception. It could of course be that he is paralysed by his father's age, his frailty, his vulnerability, and by his continuing astonishment at the turn his father's life has taken. Those are entirely understandable reasons. But it is disconcerting all the same. There is a moment when Oliver and Anna first go back to her hotel room: sitting on the bed next to him, Anna reaches out to his face, not for an embrace, but gently to grab his cheeks and hair and generally muss him up a little. You may feel like doing it, too.

Despite the overwhelming cuteness of its canine character, and the intelligent and likable performance from Plummer, Beginners is not a movie that strains to make friends with its audience from the opening frames in the Hollywood manner. It is tonally elusive, cerebral and subdued, but this is a film with a healthy, if self-conscious IQ. It could be an excellent date movie.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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