This is 2003. This is Oliver (Ewan McGregor). He is an artist whose work nobody appreciates. This is Hal (Christopher Plummer). He's a cancer-stricken widower who has come out of the closet at the age of 75. He is Oliver's father. This is 'Beginners,' Mike Mills' semi-autobiographical follow-up to 'Thumbsucker' and an artistic effort that I, for one, failed to appreciate.
See, Oliver is fine with his dad being a homosexual, even if boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic) doesn't believe that's the case. He's more troubled by the implication that his parents had a loveless marriage over so many years, making Oliver all the more concerned about his reluctance to commit to a relationship while in his late 30s.
He meets cute with Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a costume party, where the laryngitis-stricken actress is naturally dressed up as a silent movie star. He reads her thoughts on paper much as he reads the thoughts of his late father's Jack Russell terrier. Did I mention the subtitled dog? There is a subtitled dog, and a cute one at that.
Appropriately enough, when Oliver meets Anna, he's dressed up as Freud, playing an artist who's acting as a psychoanalyst in much the same way that Mills is using Oliver to explore his own issues about the very personal experiences of having his father come out at such a late age. These issues of love and loss are grounded in dilemmas that we all must face, and yet just as one might cope with tragic events using sarcasm, Mills seems to distance himself -- or, at the very least, his characters -- from real pain with relentless artifice.
Oliver is inexplicably able to read the dog's thoughts, the film's lone touch of magic realism. When Oliver learns of the cancerous lump inside his father's body, he's told that it's the size of a quarter, and so we're shown a quarter, and then five nickels, and then another combination of coins equal to that amount. When Oliver recalls Hal's revelation that he's gay, we get to see him deliver the pronouncement in the clothes Oliver thought he was wearing at the time, and then what he was actually wearing. Oliver reminds us of the time period as the narrative leaps between his early years hanging around with a lovelorn mother (Mary Page Keller), those last years spent with his father and his first dates with Anna: "This is 2003," he announces often. "This is the sun. These are the stars. This was the President," and so on.
The non-linear structure isn't an issue, nor are any of the three leads (four if you count the Jack Russell, and why shouldn't we?). Mopey and misunderstood, McGregor is a hard character to warm up to, but he does come across as fundamentally compassionate towards his father and concerned about whether or not he's bound to sabotage his interactions with Laurent, when not left to doodle in despair. Laurent matches McGregor beat for beat in terms of quiet vulnerability, even if she does happen to align with his insufferably twee sensibilities. Regardless, this is ultimately Plummer's show, and he goes about his final days with newfound relish and unshakable dignity.
Alas, virtually every moment of introspective tenderness mustered up by this trio ends up undermined by Mills' super-precious execution, each performance fragmented by all the detours and details that couldn't simply be omitted in favor of graceful emotional maturation. This is 2011, and I, for one, don't think it's too much to ask that films like 'Beginners' be based on screenplays and not scrapbooks.
Oh, and did I mention that his dad is gay? There is a dead gay dad, and a lively one at that.