Thursday, June 16, 2011

A gay father and his straight son

Christopher Plummer brings charm to Beginners.
Beginners has received lavish praise in most quarters. I wish I shared the enthusiasm of many of my colleagues, but I found the movie a mixed achievement, best when focusing on the relationship between a straight son (Ewan McGregor) and his gay father (Christopher Plummer); weakest when dealing with the son's burgeoning love affair with a French actress (Melanie Laurent).

Alternating between scenes in which McGregor's Oliver pursues a relationship with Laurent's Anna and flashbacks to Plummer's character's final years, the movie doesn't dig deeply into either situation, suggesting more than it dramatizes.

Here's the twist: Plummer's Hal didn't come out until his wife of 38 years passed away. Hal was 75 when he began openly exploring the gay life, pursuing his gayness with personal gusto and organizational frenzy. He hosts gay movie nights, gay letter-writing sessions (protests mostly) and other activities that revolve around his long-hidden sexuality.

To its credit, Beginners is not a story about Hal's hypocrisy. Within the context of Hal's repressive times, his behavior made some sense. His wife, Georgia (a wonderful Mary Page Keller) knew Hal was gay before they married. She thought she could change him. By the time she realized she couldn't, Hal and Georgia had established a life together, which they both liked.

Besides, Mom developed a set of sardonic defenses to cope with the situation. For my money, she's the movie's most interesting and least explored character.

In what amounts to its central irony, Beginners has Hal contracting lung cancer soon after leaving the closet. He's most alive at a time when he's dying, maintaining a relationship with a joyful younger man (Goran Visnjic).

Director Mike Mills, who previously directed the indie hit Thumbsucker, includes some gimmicky touches: insertion of old photos and panels from a cartoon series on which Oliver's working. Oliver provides a narration that stresses the peculiarities and similarities of the different time periods the movie covers. There's even a talking dog -- or at least one whose thoughts are projected on the screen with subtitles.

Oliver takes over Hal's Jack Russell terrier after his father's death, an event that has already transpired when the movie opens. That leaves Oliver to tell the story in flashbacks as events trigger memories of his father's recent death.

McGregor does a fine job portraying an emotionally guarded character who doesn't know quite what to make of his dying father's gayness.

For me, the love story between Oliver and Anna produced as many yawns as sighs. Previously seen in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Laruent is an interesting actress, but her character -- a woman who also has father issues -- serves mostly to show that Oliver can bring himself to the brink of commitment without actually going over the edge.

It's interesting, though not vital, to know that Mills lived through the movie's main situation, only learning that his father was gay after his mother died. It's more important to know that Beginners is good-hearted, and it certainly benefits from the quiet abandon and humor that Plummer brings to the role of a man who's determined to enjoy every moment he has left.

If there's a compelling reason to see Beginners, Plummer provides it.

No comments: