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Movie Review

Beginners

Plummer stands out in a life seen in flashbacks

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 10, 2011

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In “Beginners,’’ Christopher Plummer is full of life — and full of death. He plays Hal, a widowed father who, at 75, tells his 38-year-old son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), that he’s gay. It’s a perfect role for Plummer, whose sexuality in movies has skirted the domain of orientation and yet has always had the debonair trappings associated with homosexuals of a certain vintage.

Mike Mills, the writer and director of “Beginners,’’ appears to understand this. But he also appears not to care. Minutes into Mills’s anemically hip film, Hal is dead. The movie shuffles the present (2003), the months before Hal dies, and Oliver’s 1970s Los Angeles boyhood. But it jerks to life in the many tiny flashbacks that bring Hal back to us and to Oliver. Even then, the news is bad. Hal is dying of cancer, and the movie seems to luxuriate in the sadness of his winding down. It’s a pity party. The rest of the film concerns Oliver’s ennui, dejection, and hours spent with a stunning but similarly dour Frenchwoman (Mélanie Laurent) named Anna. That’s just a pity.

We don’t know whether Hal’s death has brought Oliver down — or, rather, lower — but the tension in his relationship with Anna stems from whether they can anti-depress each other. The son has inherited his father’s Jack Russell terrier but none of his capacity for joy.

Some co-workers at his graphic design company drag him to a Halloween house party dressed as Freud. Guests sit on the sofa and unburden themselves. He meets Anna when she sits and tries to unburden him. It’s a nice conceit. After 30 minutes, though, you begin to fear that “Beginners’’ might be nothing but conceits. The thoughts of the terrier, for instance, appear in subtitles, and Oliver attempts street art, goes roller skating, and takes Anna to her first food truck.

The character conducts himself in the same fanciful deadpan that Mills does. The movie is full of handsomely styled montages of things like coins amassing on a black background and the passionless kisses that Hal once planted on Oliver’s chic, fierce, eccentric mother, whom Mary Page Keller plays. We never see his parents together any more than that. It’s just her and the boy. That’s a nice idea. Keller, in fact, is insinuatingly good and original in these scenes. We’ve seen this miserable mother before, but not with this much poise. I love the natural restraint of her performance. It’s actually a shock that “Beginners’’ isn’t about her. She and Plummer are so strong that they leave emotional holes in the rest of the movie. (The elliptical structure saves Plummer from veering into camp. But it also keeps him from veering too deeply into character.)

Mills is talented (he has made dozens of good music videos), and he has based “Beginners’’ on events in his own life — this is loosely the story of his parents’ marriage. But the movie is foggy with reverence and uncertainty. This is the passive work of a man nervous to touch the third rail of his parents’ discontent. One montage folds the history of the marriage in with a brief history of homosexuality in Los Angeles. Whenever Mills comes up with something as inspired as that, then returns to McGregor, Laurent, and that dog moping together, you have to wonder whether he knows what his movie is about.

You also worry about the film’s cursory interest in gay life. The movie maintains a topical alignment with gay rights. But it finds very little to celebrate or rail against or discover. Dramatically and politically, it’s unfair to bring Hal out of the closet and kill him at the same time. His dying of cancer adheres to the visual vocabulary the movies use for dying of AIDS. Indeed, Hal’s life as a gay man looks as gay life does in other compassionate movies: like a wake. I can’t say I am terribly excited to watch a very good actor and the gay man he’s playing wither away.

Oliver’s relationship with Anna occupies a great deal of the film, and there are some truly resonant questions between them about how love is supposed to feel. But Mills had an opportunity to wonder the same not only about Oliver’s parents’ marriage but also about Hal’s relationship with a man (Goran Visnic, in a bad performance and a worse haircut) who is about Oliver’s age.

I don’t think Mills would knowingly marginalize this version of his father, but that’s how these snatches of Hal feel: remotely remembered. One of the film’s best scenes involves a phone call Hal makes to his son, asking about the club music he heard earlier in the night. It’s a sweet, small moment that speaks volumes about the filial and cultural coming together these two men undergo. The idea is that Hal’s new life provides Oliver with the tools to examine and improve his own. But this is a bright-looking movie with a long face that seems to have learned nothing about life from death but clichés.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

BEGINNERS Written and directed by: Mike Mills

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent, Mary Page Keller, and Christopher Plummer

At: Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 90 minutes

Rated: R (language and some sex and sexuality)

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