Can quiet lightning strike twice? Eight years ago, an unknown Irish filmmaker named John Carney released a gentle movie musical called “Once,” about an unnamed man and woman (he an Irish street musician; she an immigrant single mother) who meet and connect through song. Audiences embraced this little-movie-that-could, which eventually became an Academy Award winner (for best song, the raindrop-soft “Falling Slowly”) and inspiration for a Broadway musical. Now, here’s Carney back again, with another movie about a man and woman who connect through song. And while “Begin Again” is undeniably a pleasure to watch, the magic’s not quite there; you can, apparently, begin again, but it just won’t be the same.
Here, Carney’s swapped the streets of New York for Dublin, and brought in movie stars instead of unknowns. As good as they are, that’s part of the problem: It’s just the tiniest bit harder to lose yourself in a story when you’re thinking about how rarely Keira Knightley wears jeans on screen. Knightley plays Gretta, a British singer/songwriter in New York with her longtime boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), who’s suddenly hit the big time. Their relationship quickly sours, and Gretta’s singing alone in a club one night — where Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a failed record-label exec settling in for a drunken evening, hears dollar signs in her small, sweet voice. (In a funny scene, he gazes at Gretta and her guitar and mentally starts filling in additional instruments.)
Dan, of course, turns out to be a sweetheart (in that special, rumpled, sleepy-voiced, am-I-really-saying-this-line Ruffalo way), as does pretty much everybody in “Begin Again.” (Except maybe Dave, who’s kind of a twit.) Some beautiful if perhaps overproduced music gets made — odd, as that’s exactly the kind of music Gretta supposedly doesn’t want to make — and along the way, a sweetly earnest movie emerges, filled with pretty shots of nighttime lights and wistful smiles.
None of the songs hit you in the heart quite like “Falling Slowly” did, and “Begin Again” fades rather quickly when it’s over. But Carney deserves great credit for the movie’s clever, layered structure, and for resisting a few obvious plot turns along the way. Lightning doesn’t strike, but sunshine works, too.
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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org