Begin Again is a delightful indie romance about two screwed-over individuals: a young songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley), recently hurt by her asshole rock star boyfriend (Adam Levine in his film debut), and washed-up producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Dan has a crumbling relationship with his ex-wife and has recently been fired from the record label he founded. Stumbling drunkenly into an East Village bar, Dan discovers Gretta at the mic — bared, fragile, singing about heartbreak.
Believing Gretta to be his big break, he asks her to sign to his label, which she refuses. After some convincing, she agrees to make an album, but on her terms. Together they make an album that showcases the sounds of New York, recording live in the street, in public places, in alleyways, in parks. It’s cute, but the end result is less of a drama and more of a “making of” featurette for an album.
I’ve never lived in New York, but I have a hard believing people are this genteel there, this chipper at hearing a band playing outside their windows. I understand the film’s romantic intention: Two wayfaring nobodies in the big city trying to find themselves and eventually arriving at a deeper understanding of life and all the complex people in it. Sure, their narratives wrap up nicely, or as nicely can be expected, and they come to some semblance of peace in their respective problems. And they become friends. I’m just not certain that’s enough to hang a movie on.
Keira Knightley is not a standout singer, and Ruffalo’s Dan is not a standout performance. New York is by far the most interesting element here, and certainly the thing Gretta — and by extension, the filmmakers — are trying to showcase. Many films have attempted to be love songs to the Big Apple: 2008’s New York, I Love You, 1989’s New York Stories, and the best, the 1998 documentary The Cruise. In comparison, Begin Again feels a little too precious and falls a little flat. It makes NYC look pretty and clean, as gentle as the breathy, airy bops Gretta sings. And that’s not the New York I’ve heard of. The end of the film leaves us waiting for a resolution we didn’t know we needed, and for some sense of gravitas and drama that was never present.
Knightley is getting shining in these smaller productions, opting for less attention-grabbing roles since her Pirates days, but it’s possible for a film to be so gentle that it barely leaves an impression.