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Carney, with only two movies under his belt, has established himself as the go-to guy for stories about the way music shapes lives. In his excellent first feature, Once, he explored the musical landscape of Ireland to great effect. That movie spawned an Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly," which became the theme song to the story. Begin Again does not present a song on quite the same level, but still features memorable music, penned by Glen Hansard (star of Once) and New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander, that is appealing and catchy. Carney does a skillful job of incorporating the music as a chorus to the lives of the characters.
There is a terrific sequence early on in a local New York bar, where Dan is drowning his sorrows in booze. He hears Greta perform, with only an acoustic guitar on-hand, singing her quiet little heart out and instantly, Dan is awoken and inspired. Her performance induces yawns from the audience, but Dan sees potential. Carney stages the scene from Dan's perspective and creates a magically swelling moment, which will not be spoiled here.
The movie is probably one of the best I've seen about the music creative process. Carney seems to understand the hunger that musicians have for authenticity and the passion to express it. The audience shares in Dan's rapture for helping create something that will resonate and be remembered. The joy of invention is infectious and Carney stages some marvelous musical moments that will have audiences tapping their toes.
New York is the backdrop, but also another character in the movie and Carney incorporates the city in a memorable manner, which becomes a love letter to the musical landscape that it has to offer. While recording Greta's album, New York's unique cityscapes offer some lively and euphoric moments.
The performances are all strong, but Knightly and Ruffalo create a fragile and touching intimacy that carries the movie. They have a lovely scene about sharing their favorite music, while walking around New York, which illustrates how music can fill in the spaces that words can never fully express. Ruffalo is excellent and funny as a bruised and troubled man, whose wife (the always reliable Catherine Keener) has left him and whose teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) feels disconnected to his selfish behavior. Ruffalo shows us that he is not afraid to play the jerk, while remaining likable. His search for authentic music is admirable. Knightly is fantastic in showing the battered heart of a woman, who learns to toughen up and find her inner voice. There is subtlety to her work that is touching, while displaying a lovely singing voice, which conveys those conflicted emotions. Both actors do some of their best work, by playing against type from what audiences expect from them. Levine, in his big-screen acting debut, excels in displaying the insecure jerk who break's Greta's heart. There is a fantastic and moving scene towards the end, which involves him singing the song "Lost Stars," which he and Greta co-wrote, that speaks to the power that music holds.
There are some minor flaws, which prevents the movie from reaching the same level as Once. The storyline involving Dan and his estranged wife feels underdeveloped. It's introduced early on, but not refined enough to feel invested in the outcome. Also, the strained relationship with Dan and his daughter is not fully explored. There are also similar elements to Once in the storyline, which makes the movie feel a little familiar.
That being said, the movie is a strong follow-up, minor quibbles aside. Carney invites the audience to share in the excitement and passion of creating music in an honest and intoxicating manner. Thanks to his sharp storytelling skills, showing the effect of music in people's lives, and a pair of winning performances, the movie sings a song of romance and broken dreams that will have you humming after the credits. Music lovers rejoice, you have found your perfect movie. One of the best movies of the summer!