Sometimes coming out of the closet can be a bigger trauma for somebody else instead. Less about embarking on a new life adventure than revisiting or rather reinventing an old one on rewind, Beginners is also a profoundly intimate family drama for writer/director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker). When the thirtysomething filmmaker’s mother died. he was simultaneously hit with the news that his father was about to stroll out of his own closet after concealing that 45 year secret, and come out as a gay man at the age of 75.
Mulling these strange circumstances as rich material for a feature film, Mills seems to have also conceived this project as a cathartic form of personal therapy, as coming out of the closet collides with coming to terms with one’s own suddenly fragile identity. Ewan McGregor is Oliver, the son in question, who is barely beginning to deal with his mother’s death from cancer when his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) turns up with a brand new young boyfriend. To compound matters, Hal is terminally ill too.
Beginners is a fairly glum multiple memory lane ordeal, lifted out of it’s persistent funk occasionally – but not always – with touches of inspired lyrical musings and macabre wit. Not the least of which is Dad’s dog Arthur that he’s left behind after departing for the afterlife, a barkless canine with whom Oliver conducts brooding one way conversations. That is, until Arthur starts to reply, in subtitles yet. Which makes for two peculiat movies in a row about make-believe animal therapy for humans, following on the heels of Mel Gibson’s creature conversations in Beaver.
In Oliver’s case, it’s as much Hal’s rejuvenation as a born again gay dad as the pensive pooch’s animal advice, that spurs the sulking son with intimacy issues to embark on a hesitant makeover of his own dull solitary existence. Which leads to ambivalent mating with free spirit Ann (Melanie Laurent) after they meet by chance at a costume party. And where she’s a silent movie star communicating strictly in pretend mime, and he turns up as Sigmund Freud, fully prepared to psychoanalyze the random revelers on a convenient couch.
Beginners is frequently too moody for its own good, which tends to make it feel fractured whenever Ewan focuses on whimsical emotions in stark contrast, related to the melancholy situation. Especially the character’s detour into a creative project at work – much to the astonishment and dismay of his supportive coworkers – imagining The History Of Sadness. And where ‘the earth begins but sadness wasn’t invented yet,’ and as everyone knows, ‘the first couple marries for all the wrong reasons.’
2 1/2 stars