Ewan McGregor Needs More Seasoning in 'Beginners'

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.0/5.0
Rating: 3.0/5.0

CHICAGO – When the matriarch of a family dies, the void can create dynamic shifts or imbalance for those left behind. Pair that turmoil with the announcement that a surviving father is gay, and the atmosphere is created for the new film “Beginners.”

The title refers to both Ewan McGregor (the son) and Christopher Plummer (the Dad). They are both beginning again, Dad with his new lifestyle and the son with the realization that the past he knew will never be the same. Although writer/director Mike Mills creates an utterly unique scenario (based on his own true story), the narrative simmers when it should sizzle, and throws up a mishmash of randomness that doesn’t quite feel true.

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) begins his story with a bit of history. His family pursues the American Dream of the mid-to-late 20th Century. His parents are married in a church in San Francisco in 1955, mere blocks away from the apartment where Alan Ginsburg writes his seminal poem “Howl.” It is revealed that his mother has died recently, and shortly after that event his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet as a gay.

Oliver accepts the shocking news, although he does muse about his parent’s relationship through a series of flashbacks. He is also experiencing some career issues and relationship problems of his own, including taking up with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), an actress who feeds on the mystery behind Oliver’s current tinge of sadness.

The Golden Years: Hal (Christopher Plummer) in ‘Beginners’
The Golden Years: Hal (Christopher Plummer) in ‘Beginners’
Photo credit: Focus Features

Meanwhile Daddy Hal, despite dealing with a potentially fatal illness, is out and proud. He immediately takes to his new life, experiencing a new happiness along with it. He partners with Andy (Goran Visnjic, unrecognizable from his role on TV’s “ER”), a lover with his own baggage and father issues. Together, Hal and Oliver propagate a new era in their connection in the time they have left, precious seconds that turn into valuable moments.

Ewan McGregor gives his usual steady performance, it just felt like his character was lost. In what could be Mike Mills’ natural reaction and inclination toward his own father’s coming out, McGregor’s Oliver seems to be hiding more than his creator intended. There was almost an indication that he would end up coming out himself, so distant were his true emotions and so separated he was from the other characters.

Plummer, on the other hand, was relishing a juicy late career role. Although he was a bit tentative at times, Hal always had a broad smile on his face regarding the apparent luck he had achieved by finally living honestly. His character was closeted in an age that disdained and prosecuted the gay lifestyle, but he comes out in a time where societal acceptance has a much better quality. Director Mills humorously milks the situation by making Hal pretty fabulous, and creates a notable contrast with the persona of Andy, Hal’s lover.

Goran Visnjic as Andy steals the picture. He embodies the odd character in both physical and psychological qualities. He is miles away from handsome Dr. Luke Kovac on ER – Andy isn’t even all that good looking. It is the raw, wounded openness that Visnjic projects, equal in both positive and negative ways. Every time he is on the screen, it’s hard to take your eyes off him, but this time as an actor and not a pretty boy.

The relationship of Oliver and Mélanie Laurent Anna is not as successful as the Hal-is-out narrative, but Laurent has a certain screen presence that is sensual and alluring. It felt like the coupling was tacked on, to give Oliver a sense of presence beyond his Dad’s news and their relationship. Both Oliver and Anna are lonely individuals, cast adrift with past issues regarding their love lives, but their coming together never seems to gel.

Love is Vague: Anna (Mélanie Laurent) and Oliver (Ewan McGregor) in ‘Beginners’
Love is Vague: Anna (Mélanie Laurent) and Oliver (Ewan McGregor) in ‘Beginners’
Photo credit: Focus Features

Artistically, Mills delves into some interesting post-baby boomer issues reflecting his generation (he was born in 1966). He allowed Oliver to narrate some of the ghosts of childhood, pop culture and growth in the era, the post World War II America that shined bright as a penny. The background of Mills as a graphic artist allows these flights of fancy to burst off the screen in photography and animation. Especially good was Oliver’s pitch for a rock group album cover of a “History of Sadness.”

The film has a lot to offer, but it may be offering too much, and doesn’t satisfy the snapshot of the main story. That may the whole point of family as presented. Those are the closest relationships we’ll have in a lifetime, but they also can be very sketchy.

”Beginners” has a limited release, including Chicago, on June 10th. See local listings for show times and theaters. Featuring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent and Goran Visnjic. Written and directed by Mike Mills. Rated “R.” Click here for the HollywoodChicago.com interview with director Mike Mills of “Beginners.”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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