Few actors can make a mid-life crisis seem appealing, but as Dan, the dishevelled alcoholic music producer in John Carney’s Begin Again, Mark Ruffalo does precisely that. Nursing a failed marriage and struggling career, Dan stumbles upon Gretta (Keira Knightley), a young singer-songwriter disinterested in pursuing fame or fortune. In Gretta’s raw, unbridled talent Dan sees an opportunity to resuscitate his own life, but since breaking up with her rockstar boyfriend (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine), Gretta is wary of the manipulative music industry.
Mirroring Once, Carney’s earlier Oscar-winning success, Begin Again is all about the music, with Knightley lending her own voice to Gretta’s ambitious yet honest album, which Dan records raw on the streets of New York. The performances are loose and likeable, while the songs are genuinely catchy and Carney captures a hard-earned feel-good vibe that proves genuinely intoxicating.
Knightley is on particularly good form as the principled young songwriter whose passion for music is constantly challenged by the demands of an industry pushing for grand-scale popularity. She has great support from James Corden as the supportive best friend, and Adam Levine also delivers, despite essentially playing himself. Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld are effortlessly on point as Dan’s estranged wife and daughter, but ultimately this is Ruffalo’s show. A perennial indie darling, Ruffalo is totally charming as the flawed yet passionate Dan, while Carney captures the very best side of New York’s booming microcosm of stripped-down hipster cool.
This review first appeared in Cathay Pacific’s Discovery Magazine, November 2014