Movie Review: “Beginners”

We meet Oliver as he is cleaning up his father’s bungalow and dumping Dad’s prescription pill supply down the toilet.  His father has died, and we can see in Ewan McGregor’s face that this is but the latest blow to a guy who hasn’t been happy in a very long time.

Maybe his father was the same way. But in flashbacks, we see Dad (Christopher Plummer), in his 70s, having a chat with his son. He comes out to the kid.

“I want to explore this side of myself,” he declares. “I want to do something about it.”

He — and his son after him — we come to see are both “Beginners” at this business of finding, keeping and cherishing love. “Thumbsucker” writer-director Mike Mills has made what in other hands would have been a farce — Dad discovering his sexuality at an age when only little blue pills can make that sexuality viable. “Beginners” is more of a melancholy exploration of love, loss and discovering one’s emotional availability or lack of it.

Mills skips back and forth through time, suggesting the perfunctory and almost sexless marriage Oliver’s parents shared, mom’s death, dad’s post-coming out frolics and Oliver’s sad-faced way of processing it all.

Then some friends from work (Oliver is a graphic artist who does album covers) drag him to a costume party. He’s dressed as Freud, and is obviously a gloomy Gus. But this stunning young blonde (Melanie Laurent) who has lost her voice flirts with him through gestures and notes. She has Dr. Freud on the couch and on the ropes in no time. Might a relationship follow?

Not so fast. Remember Dad’s one big criticism — “You always have a good reason for not being with someone.”

Mills charts the ebb and flow of this affair in his unhurried, way, taking time to get to know Dad’s dippy last boyfriend and letting Oliver grow more perplexed at this romantic marvel that has fallen into his lap — or couch.

“This is embarrassing. I’m 38 and falling for a girl again. It’s like I lost the instructions!”

McGregor is reliably morose, and Plummer, in the flashbacks, gives the father a matter-of-fact bluntness that is his charm. Plummer is that rare actor lucky enough to manage half a century of undiminished dash and elan on screen.

And Laurent wistfully suggests an unlikely love worth changing for. French film actresses, like the one she plays, don’t pop into working class parties and fall for some forlorn soul disguised as Freud.

“Beginners,” opening Friday at the Regal Winter Park 20, is warm and revealing and bittersweet, if a trifle all over the place stylistically and thematically. It’s no closer to a great film than “Thumbsucker” was, but it is both easy to watch and digest, and it is particularly easy to see what this very fine cast saw in it to make them want to make it.

MPAA Rating:R for language and some sexual content

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent

Credits: Written and directed by Mike Mills. A Focus Features release.  Running time: 1:45.

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