Sunday, February 05, 2012

Beginners (2011) ***1/2

Imagine that after your mother’s death, your elderly father came out of the closet as a gay man. Imagine that he gets a boyfriend, becomes involved with gay activism, then dies of cancer three years later. Imagine that you yourself are an introverted artist with intimacy issues, desperately trying to learn how to finally make a long-term relationship work. This is the situation inhabited by Ewan McGregor’s character Oliver in this wonderful film. We find Oliver looking back on a series of broken relationships and trying to prevent history from repeating itself with his new love interest, Anna (Melanie Laurent).

Jumping back and forth in time, the film reveals Oliver’s and his dad’s stories at a thoughtful, intimate pace. The film is chock full of food for thought. I was struck by how Oliver’s poor tolerance for intimacy was probably influenced by growing up with his parents’ passionless marriage. It’s interesting how Oliver and his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) only really get to know each other after Hal comes out. Then too, it’s sad that Hal is so accustomed to keeping secrets in his life that he hides the seriousness of his illness from his lover.

Anna fits right into this little collections of misfits. Like Oliver, she craves intimacy, but has a poor tolerance for day to day closeness with another person. It will be a miracle if these two can make it work, but they are both mature enough to recognize the importance of trying to overcome their own personal failings.

Between all of this adult psychological stuff, the cancer, and the reflections on the struggles of a gay man in our society, “Beginners” could easily feel dark and depressing, yet somehow the movie maintains a lightness. Powered by an Oscar-nominated performance from Christopher Plummer, Hal’s charming sense of humor about himself overflows into the rest of the story. Plus, there is a really cute dog in the movie, and Ewan McGregor‘s interactions with the little terrier are the best I have seen since Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets.”

3.5 stars out of 5

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