Writer-director John Carney had a surprise hit in 2007 with his lovely, lo-fi romance Once, in which a man and a woman (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) fall in love while composing music together. It was a thoroughly charming and winning story - one that was given extra resonance when the two leads fell in love in real life and toured together as The Swell Season - that felt like a scruffy, raw debut album, the kind that people fall madly in love to. If Once was Carney's "Funeral", then Begin Again is his "Neon Bible"; a slicker, more polished sophomore effort that has much the same romanticism that its predecessor had, but lacks that sense of intimacy.
Like Once, Begin Again focuses on the connection that forms between a man and woman as they create music. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is an A&R man who is on the verge of being fired from his own company due to his binge-drinking, something which stems from the breakdown of his marriage to his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), a writer who lives with their daughter Violet (Haillee Steinfeld). After a heated showdown with his business partner (Mos Def), Dan stumbles into a small club and happens to see Gretta (Kiera Knightley) reluctantly take to the stage to play one of her delicate folk songs. Even though everyone else in the bar doesn't seem to be paying attention, the song sparks something in Dan, and he tells Gretta that they're going to make a record together. When interest in Gretta's songs doesn't appear, Dan has the idea of making the album themselves, recording it live on the streets, subways and roofs of New York and allowing the ambient noise of the city to form the backdrop to a record of love, loss and hope.
There's an awkwardness to Begin Again's first third that the rest of the film never fully recovers from. Carney uses a bit of structural trickery that allows him to replay Gretta's crucial performance two and a half times; once without any other context, a second time after jumping back in time to show Dan's backstory, and then again after jumping back further to show that Gretta came to New York with her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), a rock star who promptly cheated on her, forcing her to sleep on the couch of a busker friend (James Corden). There are plenty of nice moments amid this recursion - a scene in which Gretta deduces Dave's infidelity by listening to a new song and figuring out that it's about another woman is particularly effective, and there's a dose of magical realism when instruments around Gretta start playing themselves as Dan visualises how her song would sound with a fuller arrangement - but it's the cinematic equivalent of a scratched CD. You can't help but wonder when the next song is going to start.
That opening also illustrates that the original compositions, while pleasant in a Norah Jones, easy-listening kind of way, are not strong enough to carry the momentum of the story. The song Gretta plays is fine, but it's not so good that it warrants being played twice in its entirety in the space of ten minutes. This is partly a matter of taste, and I'll freely admit that I just don't care for the kind of music Gretta plays, but it's problematic in a broader sense because the film presumes that the music is more emotionally compelling than it actually is. Even in an acoustic form, the songs feel too much like radio-friendly unit shifters to be convincing as genuine artistic statements in the same way that Hansard and Irglová's songs did. There's a kind of empty universality to them, a sense that the songs are just a collection of big, broad statements that don't really have any heart behind them.
At one point early on in their friendship, Dan and Gretta have a slightly drunken discussion about the nature of "authenticity" in music, and whether it even exists since most artists deemed "authentic" actually cultivate a very specific persona to appeal to their audience. It's an interesting conversation, not because of what they're saying (though they are correct about the intense authenticity of Randy Newman) but because the film implicitly wants us to side with Gretta, who argues that authenticity is a real and important thing in music, but that runs against the way the film presents itself. Begin Again is a glossy crowd pleaser that never feels true, which renders the discussion about authenticity wholly inauthentic.
While the two leads are good enough to overcome such contradictions between content and tone, and the supporting cast are fairly strong, the film grinds to a halt every time Adam Levine is required to do anything other than sing in that annoying falsetto of his. To return to the album analogy for a moment, Adam Levine's performance as Dave, a man whose dickishness seemingly knows no limits, is to Begin Again what Johnny Depp's guitar work was to Oasis' "Be Here Now"; needlessly distracting, wildly misjudged and largely irrelevant. Carney had great luck casting musicians in Once, and has some success here thanks to a funny, laconic turn by Mos Def, but Levine just sucks all the air out of the room every second he's on screen. Even though he's meant to be the closest thing the film has to a villain (he's not evil so much as he's just a massive jerk) he also needs to appear like someone that Gretta could have conflicted feelings about. Instead, Levine gives a performance that is always slightly creepy and insincere, which saps any tension out of his scenes with Knightley since it never seems remotely likely that she would go back to him. His part isn't hugely important to the broader story, but it takes up just enough time to feel like a wasted opportunity, and to suggest that the story would have been better served if it was just about Gretta and Dan.
Despite all of this, Begin Again just about rights itself once it focuses on Gretta and Dan recording her album. It's here that the charm, charisma and chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo can come to the fore, and there is a joyous sense of fun to the scenes when they perform together. (There's also a thoroughly lovely sequence in which they walk around New York listening to music together that could have veered into suffocating quirk, but winds up being effective thanks to the grounded approach of Carney and his actors.) Carney displays a refreshingly uncynical belief that music can forge new relationships and repair old ones (a belief better reflected in Begin Again's original title, Can a Song Save Your Life?) and when he embraces that romantic notion, and jettisons any pretensions that he's telling an authentic story, the film works as a big, bold celebration of the ephemeral power of music and creativity.
Tellingly, one of Begin Again's worst scenes, in which Gretta and Dan go to visit a former client played by CeeLo Green, proves to be the one that frees it up to break from reality and become a truer version of itself, one that embraces how inauthentic it is as a depiction of musicians trying to make it in New York and as critique of the music industry, and how well it works as a story about the redemptive power of music. It ultimately winds up feeling like an album with a couple of amazing singles and lots of filler, but the moments when it works are almost worth the many when it doesn't.