Twee of Life

Director Mike Mills pushes audience boundaries just a little in Beginners, but the cute terrier signals his real intentions
DOGGONE CUTE: Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregorfight for screen time with an adorable terrier in 'Beginners.'

IT IS probably uncalled for to go harsh on Beginners, an essentially sweet and harmless movie. It's like dog-piling on a Jack Russell terrier. Even as a terrier is bred to be small and wistful, to cock its head quizzically when it "says" something adorable, Beginners was cooked for maximum appeal.

The film has had its success by carefully patrolling the boundaries of what an audience can take. Could you accept a gay father? What if he courteously waited 40 years for his wife's death to come out? Would it be OK for him to have a sex life in his 70s, if all he was into was mild frottage? To reinforce the lesson, there's a moment where the father's lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic) is talking almost directly to the audience: "What I do doesn't even count as sex to most people."

We meet Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as he's cleaning up his father's house after his death—that dolorous task of trashbagging a parent's life. In narrated flashback, we hear the father's story. Four years ago, after decades of marriage, Hal came out as gay. Christopher Plummer plays Hal, talking straight to the camera as often as not.

Plummer's sterling professionalism and restraint, even in scenes of wasting away on a deathbed, have been essential to the rapturous word of mouth for Beginners. He's probably going to the Oscars, but watching Plummer in the context of this whimsical, twee script is like watching a man play Rachmaninoff on a toy piano.

Oliver's own social life isn't as busy as that of his out and proud dad. He meets a girl at a costume party. She's a wandering French actress who will only entertain him in her hotel room, to keep the commitment light. She is called Anna, and she's played by Mlanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds).

Their hookup is a meet-cute of the purest marzipan; he's Freud, she's Charlie Chaplin (or enough like him that there's no legal ramifications). And Anna is even silent like Chaplin: She carries a note pad; the doctor has forbid her to speak because of a case of laryngitis. A similar motif appeared in director Mike Mills' earlier film Thumbsucker, where the girl was a whisperer. I'm not sure if Mills doesn't want to assay romantic dialogue because it's all lies, or because he can't figure out what a girl would say.

Beginners, with its sense of a too-gentle graphic novel come to life, is a bohemian movie in which there's not much engagement with the nonbohemian world. In real life, that's where the friction comes in, the strife that causes creativity. Beginners' world is a closed-off art ghetto. Even Oliver's job is dealing with other artists; his clients are the real-life band the Sads.

This hermetic quality explains why a dog is so essential to the story. Hal's terrier Arthur is adopted by Oliver. The animal speaks in subtitles, commenting on the action, sometimes giving wise advice to Oliver to throw a ring around Anna: "Are we married yet?" the dog asks.

Mills isn't bad with a landscape; the wan whites of digital filmmaking pay off during a morning walk in the hills near Dodger Stadium, which look as misty as a Corot.

Mary Page Keller adds some salt in flashback scenes as Oliver's mother. She's whimsical, too, but it's a more aggressive whimsy; she likes to make scenes, silently harassing the culture vultures at LACMA.

Beginners provides excellent cross-programming to the superhero Stürm und Drang, but it is excruciatingly cute. The downside of a story for aging children is, in a word, childishness, and Beginners has it heavy: the talking pooch, the roller-skating dates followed by slumber parties, the little cartoons scribbled out by Oliver at his desk and the Dick and Jane book view of passing history: "This is the president ... this is the living room...").

The father's story is eclipsed by the son's own dithering: He's a child not quite grown up yet even at middle age. The noble history of the gay-rights movement, appropriated for this mope's tale, isn't enough to give this movie a spine.


R; 105 min.

Opens June 17

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