Oscar Actors: Plummer, Christopher

At 82, Christopher Plummer will become one of the oldest actors to win the Supporting Actor for his performance in “Beginners.”

“Beginners” is a romantic comedy, but one with much more substance and depth than most of the romantic comedies we see these days.  Like the best of the genre, “Beginners” captures the times and waxes philosophical while entertaining us with a simple but honest love story.

Review of Mills’ debut Thumbsucker: www.emanuellevy.com/review/thumbsucker-3/

“Beginners” could be an awards contender, certainly for the lead performances and writer-director Mike Mills’s sturdy screenplay. If this film had been released closer to Oscar season, Christopher Plummer would definitely be up for his role as a gay dad dying of lung cancer.

If “Beginners” winds up good rather than great, it’s because it falters slightly toward the end, when the romance between Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent starts going around in circles. But this perhaps is meant by Mills to be a reflection of the trend toward ambiguity in relationships today, with less melodrama, no closure, no clear path forward.

The current thinking in psychology on the effects of our parents’ relationship, and those of our relationships with our parents on our own romantic success is evident in this movie. Oliver (McGregor) and Anna (Laurent) are fighting against their parents’ past—and their past with their parents—to find a way to commit to each other, or to at least stay together a bit longer. In Oliver’s case, his parents were locked into a sad marriage. They were friends more than lovers, his dad, Hal (Plummer), being gay, his mother being determined to “fix” her husband.

Oliver is obsessed with the idea of sadness, and how it may be passed from generation to generation. He feels that it might be getting worse as it is passed down. The younger generation, he says, has more freedom to wallow in its misery. Why commit, if the only option is another round of sadness?

“Beginners” centers on a period of several years, during which Oliver’s mother dies, his father comes out as a gay man, and Oliver falls madly in love with Anna. Mills keeps things percolating—shades of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”—by constantly jumping around chronologically. Luckily, he does so without ever confusing us.

Mills gets moving, nuanced performances from both of his leads. Plummer and McGregor give understated performances that serve the mood well. Both of these roles, especially Plummer’s, could have been overdone and could have easily spoiled the movie.

“Beginners” is a timely reminder of what acting chops McGregor has as he enters mid-career. The actor is clearly starting to age a bit—still looking great, maybe even better—and he’s able to pull out a more mature performance than we have ever seen from him.

Mills, who previously directed “Thumbsucker” (2005), brings his extensive background in music video and graphic design to bear, developing an impressive visual language here that meshes well with the story. The screenplay mostly succeeds in keeping up with Mills’s speedy visual imagination.

His strategy includes many sketches that Oliver, also a graphic designer, makes in order to process his feelings. This turns out to be a smart way to develop the character, who may not be able to express in words what is going on inside.

Flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood in the 1970s look just about right. For some reason, it is so hard for filmmakers to get the 1970s right—Mills is the welcome exception.

The film is also genuinely funny throughout. There is an unforgettable party sequence early on: Oliver arrives to a costume party as Sigmund Freud and begins to somberly analyze the costumed partygoers, one of whom turns out to be Anna, their first encounter.

Hal’s dog, which later becomes Oliver’s dog, gets the most laughs. Oliver and the dog often engage in “serious” conversations—with dog subtitles—about Oliver’s prospects with Anna.

Among its many other charms, “Beginners” is easily the best dog movie of the year so far.

Cast

Oliver – Ewan McGregor

Hal – Christopher Plummer

Anna – Melanie Laurent

Andy – Goran Visnjic

Credits

A Focus Features release.

Directed and written by Mike Mills.

Produced by Miranda de Pencier, Lars Knudsen, Leslie Urdang, Jay Van Hoy, and Dean Vanech.

Cinematography, Kasper Tuxen.

Editing, Olivier Bugge Coutte.

Original Music, Roger Neill, Dave Palmer, and Brian Reitzell.

Running time: 105 minutes.

By Jeff Farr