Writer/director John Carney’s latest film, “Once,” felt like a miracle — an intimate little film thats shaggy story and grainy visuals were held together by the sheer power of its music and performances. Carney’s long-awaited follow-up, “Begin Again,” is a more polished film and features Keira Knightley demonstrating an accomplished, gorgeous singing voice. Unfortunately, the film’s story and style are distractingly similar to “Once,” and despite its charms, “Begin Again” never manages to escape that familiarity.
“Begin Again” opens in a grungy New York bar, as Greta (Knightley) is summoned to the stage for an impromptu performance of a sad little song she wrote. The film quickly backtracks, telling the backstory of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a music exec in the throes of a breakdown when he happens to be in the bar that night. He is inspired both by Greta’s music and Greta, a songwriter who followed her boyfriend/partner Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) to New York, only to be dumped through song. When Dan approaches Greta she’s initially skeptical, but he eventually convinces her to record an unconventional album on the streets of New York.
Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley are both spectacularly charming in the right role, and Carney displays an apt understanding of what makes them worth watching. Ruffalo’s down-on-his-luck music exec is the kind of sadsack role the actor brings such humanity to. He also shares a crackling chemistry with Knightley, who’s never been quite so radiant and likable before. Knightley conjures up instant sympathy for Greta with her moving opening number, but she’s hugely effective throughout, be it with the dawning horror that her boyfriend’s newest song is about another woman, or when she gives sincere advice to Dan’s daughter (“True Grit”’s Hailee Steinfeld).
What made “Once” so memorable was the fantastic original songs by stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, and while Hansard was one of many contributors to the music in “Begin Again,” there’s nothing here that’s quite as moving as the former film’s Oscar-winning ballad “Falling Slowly.” Here, the songs struggle to rise above generic make-out jams, especially when Levine, who proves to be a fine but unspectacular performer, takes over for the big final number. Still, the songs are prevented in an innovative fashion — either through flashbacks, or through the impromptu, energetic recording sessions held on the streets of New York City. Knightley does a great job bringing the music to life, and is especially winning singing her way through an impulsive drunk-dial to her ex, but can’t make most of the songs stand out in a crowded soundtrack.
Most of “Begin Again”’s shortcomings come from its inability to distinguish itself, both within its genre and within its director’s small body of work. Carney’s got a strong knack for undercutting sexual tension with a deeply felt yearning, but the romances in his films never quite go anywhere, and while that felt like a beautiful, meaningful decision by the characters in “Once,” it feels like a retread here.
Though “Begin Again” is too familiar by a large measure, it still deflects enough expectations of the romance genre that it stands out in that regard. The film thrives on the infectious joy of collaboration and creativity, and Carney perfectly captures a number of small moments between its wholly authentic characters. While “Begin Again” is no powerhouse of emotion, its charming performances and emotional musical numbers make it a worthy if forgettable use of its brisk 104 minutes.