Not so long ago, I cracked, in regards to Mike Mills's second feature directorial outing Beginners, "if you've ever nurtured the desire to see Christopher Plummer dancing in a gay club, you've got your chance". The joke turns out to be on me: Christopher Plummer dancing in a gay club takes up all of three seconds of the whole feature, but Christopher Plummer playing a gay man who, after 75 years in the closet, 44 of them spent in marriage to a woman who (from the minimal evidence we see) took it as a personal insult that she wasn't able to "fix" him, finally comes out to his son and throws himself into the pursuit of the love and lust he so assiduously denied himself for an entire lifetime; that turns out to be indeed a very fine reason to see Beginners, played with great depth of feeling and gentleness and insight and sensitivity and all those other buzzy words critics use to try to get across the idea that, here we have a performance that shall make you feel like washed clean by the end of it. If this is how Plummer finally takes down his long-overdue acting Oscar, it may not be the best possible choice, but not a soul will be able to cluck their tongue and shake their head and say, "no, this is quite wrong". In fact, Plummer turns out to be nearly the only reason to see Beginners, which is on the whole an impossibly dreary film.
If we were to untangle the film's plot and lay it out all straight-like (it's otherwise a series of interlaced flashbacks), Beginners starts in 1999, when graphic designer Oliver's (Ewan McGregor) mother dies, and his father, Hal (Plummer) comes out as homosexual. For four years, Oliver observes his father getting to be happy and at peace with himself, all the while dying by inches of cancer. After he eventually does so, Oliver adopts his dog, Arthur, and sits in a funk for a very long time, until his friends drag him out to a Halloween party. There, he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a struggling actress, and they fall in love with each other, though Oliver is neurotic enough that he starts subconsciously looking for ways to fuck it up, unable to get over his perceptions from childhood (where he was played by Keegan Boos) that his father and mother (Mary Page Keller) were so emotionally unsuited for each other that there's no such thing as an adult relationship that works.
There are three emotional registers in which Beginners spends virtually all of its time: dour and morose, insufferably twee, and genuinely rich and uplifting. The last of these is the most wanting, though the fact that the film spends any time there whatsoever is already proof that Beginners is a tremendous stride in the right direction for Mills after his only preceding feature, the excruciating Thumbsucker from 2005. For that matter the relative balance between moroseness and quirkiness favors the new film as well; there may not be much about watching emotionally broken people being emotionally broke that's terribly fun or - when it's executed with as little grace as Mills shows here - illuminating, but I for one will take it any day over the suffocating indie movie affectation that makes up nearly all of Thumbsucker and most of the scenes in Beginners that involve Anna, starting with her very introduction: at the Halloween party, she has laryngitis, and can only communicate through gamine-eyed facial expressions and a note pad. Oliver is at this time, I should mention, dressed as Sigmund Freud, and has been giving fake psychoanalysis to the other partygoers; Anna is dressed in a very vague was as a '30s man, but given that she is naught but a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it doesn't matter if she has her own sufficiently-expressed personality.
And is it just me, or has it been kind of a while since we've seen one of that particularly awful breed of movie femininity? Between Mills and Laurent, they seem hellbent on making up for lost time: Anna is a particularly personality-deficient, extra-special-sparkling variant of the kind, bringing the twinkle of joy to Oliver's closed-off world that even his dog, speaking in subtitles that Oliver can apparently understand, cannot provide (I can squint my eyes just enough that the subtitled dog routine is not so irritating that I can't ignore it). I'd be inclined to blame Mills's screenplay, which doesn't seem much interested in the inner lives of its characters, but Laurent is just so goddamn eager to play up everything that is the most shallow and cutesy about Anna, never once trying to play her as a flesh-and-blood woman, that I find myself wondering what the hell happened on the Inglourious Basterds set that made her seem, at the time, like the awesome new actress we all wanted to pay attention to.
The parts of Beginners that are merely soul-crushingly depressing are, in comparison, relatively painless, even effective. Oliver is theoretically interesting than the film lets him be (our constant awareness that he is actively jealous of Hal's newfound ability to express and receive love is never quite rewarded by the film managing to do anything with it, other than present it as the situation; McGregor, giving as good a performance as the script really asks of him, almost looks at times like he's begging permission to actually go and chase down this or any other thread that makes his character interesting, rather than pin them down and walk by), but as a depiction of the human mind in a state of despair, the film manages to do some things right - the spare production design is quite great, for example, as evocative as anything any character says or does. Even Kasper Tuxen's uncomfortably dim cinematography, married to Mill's apparent lack of understanding that "depth" exists in compositions, manage to reinforce the idea that Oliver's world is a tiny, crumbly hole, though that's an accidental triumph at best.
And so, Plummer. Who is great and then some, who keys us into tiny snatches of emotion (the matter-of-fact way he admits that his new, polyamorous boyfriend is not exactly his dream lover, is an hundredfold better than the same moment would have been overplayed for pathos), who gives the movie its only breath of proper joy and vitality, and who alone seems to have an actual history that the actor and character both know about, and want to imply to us without stating it outright. There's a great movie to be built around Hal; it's not Beginners, which reduces him to little more than a prop in his son's journey from sad bastard to somewhat less sad bastard; but at least Beginners shows him off a little bit, and that's better than nothing at all.