Movie review: 'Beginners' can't finish what it started

Al Alexander

You can’t fault “Beginners” for its ambition. It throws everything writer-director Mike Mills can think of at the screen, from a dog talking in subtitles to historical slide shows that remind us of who was president in every era from the 1950s until the early 21st century. There’s also a romantic comedy hankering to break out, along with a wrenching social statement about homosexuals forced to live their lives in hiding.

That’s all well and good, and as an experiment in filmmaking, it’s certainly imaginative. But where’s the payoff? Where there should be emotion, there’s only pretension. And where there should be a reason to care, there resides largely indifference.

There is, however, Christopher Plummer, Papa von Trapp, climbing every mountain in a performance taller than the Alps. It might even be the greatest work of his storied career, playing a closeted gay man who finally decides to come out at age 75, only to learn four years later that he has terminal cancer.

As cute, cuddly and charming as Plummer is, he’s hardly enough to rescue a movie afflicted with a textbook case of ADHD. “Beginners” is all over the map, telling parallel stories about Plummer’s Hal Fields indoctrinating himself into the openly gay lifestyle; his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) fidgeting his way into a romance with Anna, a quirky French actress (the beautiful and talented Melanie Laurent from “Inglourious Basterds”); and Oliver’s attempts at being taken seriously as an avant-garde artist.

Toss in a few flashbacks to Oliver’s relationship with his oddball mother (Mary Paige Keller) and a losing battle with cancer and you begin feeling the pangs of plot overload. Oh, did I mention the talking dog?

It’s as infuriating as it is frustrating to watch. Yet, it’s such an unabridged train wreck, you cannot take your eyes off of it, mainly because you’re never sure where Mills, following up on 2005’s “Thumbsucker,” is about to go next. And in this day of cookie-cutter 3-D movies, that unpredictability is surely something to appreciate. But I would have cherished it more if the movie were about 20 minutes shorter and axed the dull romantic machinations between Oliver and Anna, a pair possessing about as much charisma as Ron Paul.

No, their relationship isn’t based on Mills’ marriage to fellow filmmaker/artist Miranda July, or at least that’s what he’s been telling the press, but it’s about the only thing not based on his life. Yes, Mills did have a father who came out at age 75 following the death of his wife of 45 years, and, yes, his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 79, and, yes, his father found a much younger, less intelligent lover (portrayed by “ER’s” Goran Visnjic) through the personals.

In that respect, the film is interesting simply because it’s so personal. It’s also hauntingly realistic, particularly in the scenes where Hal is being treated for cancer and all his adoring son can do is stick by his side. Those moments are touching, as are Hal’s often humorous attempts to get hip to gay mainstays like house music, and his acceptance into a gay community that immediately becomes his second family.

Mills, a multifaceted artist, makes those moments far too rare, though, as he indulges his creative instincts beyond the tolerance of a mainstream audience, which is exactly the demographic he seems to be courting with all the twee touches, like Oliver and Anna meeting at a Halloween party in which he is dressed like Freud and she as Julius Rosenberg. How cute! And did I mention the talking dog?

At least the mutt is more fascinating than the scenes in which Oliver (aka Mills) fondly recalls growing up in the 1960s with his art-loving mother, who was the very definition of eccentric. It’s nice that Mills loved his mother and his father, but he’s sadly mistaken that his reminiscences make for a stimulating movie.

It’s almost as big a faux pas as not making Plummer’s brilliant portrayal of Hal not only the main focus, but the only focus of a movie that – as we say in the newspaper business – buries the lead. Well, at least there’s the talking dog.

Reach Al Alexander at aalexander@ledger.com.

BEGINNERS (R for language and some sexual content.) Cast includes Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent. Written and directed by Mike Mills. 2 stars out of 4.