Inebriation and cinema often exist in paradoxical relation to each other: Excepting the broad comedy of The Hangover and its ilk, the tendency among films about drunkenness is to err on the side of sobriety in style and execution. For every Bad Santa there are a dozen films like Leaving Las Vegas and Affliction that view alcoholism from the outside in, observing their subjects with sympathetic but icy reserve, the camera functioning as silent, note-scribbling therapist. Begin Again is the rare film that, in charting the antics of its frequently inebriated protagonist, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), feels drunk itself. Constantly lurching forward at a woozy but rapid rhythm, obsessively revisiting certain scenes while bulldozing through others, the film has a reckless, expressionist energy that offsets the simplicity of its story and characterizations. It lives in the high and not in the comedown, even though its characters are often stalled and wallowing.
Begin Again’s true focal point isn’t Dan or his demons, but the creative impulse as alchemic entity. This abstract theme finds narrative manifestation in the platonic union between Dan, a struggling music producer when he isn’t on the bottle, and Greta (Keira Knightley), a reclusive singer-songwriter healing from a bad breakup. They’re united only by their shared passion for music; dissimilar not only in age and experience, but also ideology (she renounces fame while he courts it), they tread around each other with equal parts curiosity and caution. Their sense of interpersonal unease never settles, but rather ebbs and flows as they collaborate on an ambitious project, an album of Greta’s songs all live-recorded in various locations around New York City.
The outdoor recording is a romantic but naïve gambit, and indicative of director John Carney’s inclination toward fairy-tale storytelling. After a series of initial setbacks, things go a bit too swimmingly for Dan, Greta, and their album, with money suddenly easy to procure and personal reconciliations fueling boons of creativity. The film works better when the exultant power that the duo finds in music is somewhat at odds with their messy, thoroughly unromantic personal lives. The disharmony between their personal dissatisfactions and their artistic passions helps to articulate how the creative impulse can be a drug itself, an escape from the mundane trappings of daily life. Begin Again’s ecstatic energy builds out of a place of sorrow and disillusionment, even if Dan and Greta’s individual storylines can feel two-dimensional: The former’s estranged relationship with his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), and teenage daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), is only presented in brief, broad strokes, while the latter’s tumultuous past with sudden superstar Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) takes predictable, flattening turns. Yet these strands adequately function as the banal triggers for Begin Again’s quixotic skyward rush.
Dan and Greta’s album, seen through from drunken conception to completion and distribution, is the nucleus around which every scene and character orbits, and as such Begin Again lives or dies by the quality of its original music. Written and produced by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals, Greta’s songs are immanently appealing and listenable, but hardly spectacular, which works in the film’s favor: Its characters are talented though far from geniuses, finding joy in the making of music rather than in the final product itself, but the album is still absolutely believable as a career-making hit. Original music is also carefully integrated into the fabric of Begin Again’s plot: A tender love song penned by Greta for Dave becomes the contested terrain of their fallout, as Dave reinterprets the song and Greta disparages him for it. The song’s distortion over time, its multiple incarnations widely varying in quality, affirms the film’s greater understanding of music as mutable, transformative organism, different to every person who hears it, but nonetheless a powerful, even sublime facilitator of human connection.