What songwriter hasn’t thought of moving to New York in the hopes of being discovered? What aspiring musician hasn’t at least considered auditioning for The Voice, or fantasized about what it would be like to date Adam Levine and be friends with CeeLo?
As with his 2007 hit Once, writer/director John Carney again presents such an optimistic story, with all its dreamers, losers, opportunists—and original score—this time framed in Manhattan instead of Dublin. Yet unlike Once, with its frumpy clothes, dingy digs, and less-than-perfect looks, Begin Again’s bohemia is too contrived, its songbook too forced, its cast too well-known and practiced.
Keira Knightley is Greta, faithful girlfriend to up-and-coming rocker Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) and an aspiring songwriter herself. (Knightley performs her own songs, which bear some resemblance to Aimee Mann’s.) After Kohl scores a record deal, the pair moves to Manhattan, where he’s quickly seduced by the industry’s trappings. When Greta turns to fellow busker Steve (James Corden), he whisks her out to an open-mike night in the Village, where she’s discovered by down-on-his luck record exec Dan (Mark Ruffalo).
After some late-night beer-fueled banter, Dan and Greta team up to make a record. Rebuffed by Dan’s partner Saul (Mos Def), the pair resolves to go the DIY route—with financial assistance from Dan’s former client TroubleGum (CeeLo Green). Meanwhile we learn of Dan’s difficult separation from his family and Greta’s struggles with Kohl.
Obviously we expect these two to connect, just as in Once. That film worked for me (and many others) because I could buy the central couple played by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (both of them real musicians). Begin Again feels more like something purchased in a SoHo boutique. Greta’s supposed thrift-store chic simply reads as Knightley being expensively styled as Annie Hall.
The film becomes too much the glossy, magazine-cover fantasy: Where in the known world would you find CeeLo, Levine, and Mos Def—who comes around in the end—all banking on one unproven songwriter’s raw talent? While Carney is again peddling the notion that a musician with a dream can get discovered, the reality of “making it” in the music biz has everything to do with hard work—not simple luck, as is the case here.
Opens Wed., July 2 at Guild 45th and other theaters. Rated R. 104 minutes.