BEGIN AGAIN // John Carney trades in his delicate musical touch for celebrity appeal and a bigger budget; $150,000 versus $9 million. “Once” was a love story told through the passion of music with its main ballad, “Falling Slowly,” going on to win the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Begin Again” has a love story buried in it somewhere, perhaps for a city rather than between two people, while its ballad, “Lost Stars,” (sung by Adam Levine) may be catchy but is simply not as captivating. Carney does continue to find interesting ways to keep music intriguing and alive in cinema, but in turn, loses focus on what really turns heads. Whereas Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová of the band The Swell Season broke through in “Once,” by composing and performing their own music, Carney turns towards established stars like Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, who actually make the film feel smaller by their presence. Kudos for casting Adam Levine, who does perform his own songs, at least keeping that aspect of Carney’s films alive. Levine was actually always pegged for the part and even declined to be paid for the role, this marking his feature film debut.

Ruffalo’s role was also written for him, playing the lead character Dan, a down-and-out music producer forced out of his own company. Knightley plays Gretta, the girlfriend of soon-to-be superstar Dave (Levine), who is unceremoniously dumped after Dave’s first glimpse of success. Dan meets Gretta at an open mic night when she is forced onstage by a friend. Seeing huge potential in her music, Dan propositions her to make an album. With no money and no recording studio, they set out to produce an album on the streets, in the parks, and among the people of New York City. What comes off as a great premise for a film becomes a narrative that glides along with nothing stopping it. Obstacles are always easily overcome. Very little stands in the way of them making the album and begs the question why everyone isn’t out in the streets recording their next EP. Even Dan’s side stories, like he and his wife’s (Catherine Keener) separation and his absence and lack of authority over his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit”) are both easily resolved problems. The biggest challenge the film poses is whether there are actually ever feelings between Dan and Gretta, and since that is never addressed, that question still remains.

Having gone from such a tight, passionate, low budget work like “Once,” which really showcased something special to a less inspired, overproduced, Hollywood outing like “Begin Again,” one has to ask, “what happened?” “Begin Again” is in no way a bad film, but it fails to display the ingenuity featured in Carney’s previous work, showing just how high the bar was actually set with “Once”. With a bigger budget and bigger stars, Carney should have brought his unique vision to the masses. Instead, he assimilated his work into the romantic comedy genre, driving a wedge between his past and his present. Had singer-songwriter Adele, who was initially considered for Knightley’s role, been cast opposite Ruffalo, (and I mean no ill-will to Knightley) that would have shaken things up entirely. But without any real chances taken, “Begin Again” feels like a film that could have been made by anyone.

[Directed by John Carney] [R] [104 min] [11 July 2014]    07threehalf-stars

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