For writer/director John Carney, at least one story is tried and true: A pair of unlikely partners are drawn together by the promise of making music. In the case of his perfectly romantic Once, this resulted in an Oscar win (for Best Original Song), an acclaimed Broadway adaptation, and an actual relationship between its two leads, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. (They’ve since broken it off, as chronicled in 2011’s remarkably intimate The Swell Season.)
If that film was raw sugar, then Begin Again – which sees scorned songwriter Gretta (Knightley) and washed-up record company exec Dan (Ruffalo) reluctantly collaborating – is Splenda in comparison. With the increase in star power and a move from the streets of Dublin to New York City, there has come a proportional increase in agreeable phoniness regarding each character’s motivations and the will-they-or-won’t-they tensions that ensue.
Even the narrative fitfully shares the same remix-happy tendencies as the music biz it showcases, as Carney’s first act repeatedly returns to the same open mic night to reveal what exactly has led both Gretta and Dan to their fateful first meeting. She’s just left Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5), a pop star on the rise who’s failed to resist the temptations of his fan base. And Dan has just lost his job at the Grammy-winning hip-hop label that he co-founded, unable to turn any of his peculiar hunches into bona fide hits and losing a family in the process.
However, as Gretta begins to play for an indifferent bar crowd, Dan visualizes the arrangements coming to life behind her and sees as much as he hears a song with radio-worthy potential. They decide to go stripped-down in the face of overwhelming corporate influence, recording an entire album live on the streets of the Big Apple in a last-ditch attempt to jump-start her musical career and rescue his.
Mercifully replaced, the film’s original title, Can a Song Save Your Life?, accurately indicates the earnest tone on display. (Even just the title Once counters with elegant simplicity.) In the recurring battle between commercial potential and acoustic authenticity, Begin Again genuinely believes it’s delivering the latter while often reflecting the former. This is a movie whose “Falling Slowly” scenes are primed, positioned, and repeated for maximum impact rather than sneaking up with minimal pretense to floor the viewer.
With that said, there’s still enough to enjoy, whether it’s Levine’s increasingly douchey stages of facial hair as his success grows, Knightley’s raw recognition that he’s written a song about someone else, or Ruffalo tearing up in the car after he drops off his daughter (Steinfeld). Each of these lovely little moments and those catchy little ditties effectively combats the convention threatening to swallow the story whole at every turn.
It’s no Once – hell, it’s not even Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist – but if one is willing to accept the poppy indulgence of it all, Begin Again is equally easy on the eyes and ears. In other words, it’s the Maroon 5 of movies.