Growing up, Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) always felt there was something off about his parents' relationship. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), showed great affection for his family but was very distant and that left his mother (Mary Page Keller) often feeling alone. Stuck in the middle, Oliver internalized the lessons learned at home and as a thirtysomething in 2003, he lives a guarded life filled with broken relationships that he never really invested in. His way of living begins to change however, when Hal informs him that not only is he gay, but that he has been stricken with terminal cancer. Beginners spends its time cutting back and forth between Oliver's final interactions with Hal and the start of his relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress who immediately puts his new outlook to the test.
I confess I was not all that interested in Beginners when it debuted earlier this summer. Despite its positive reception, the subject matter isn't within my general level of interest. But as Award Season draws closer, I often find myself playing catch-up on this sort of film when it becomes clear that it will be a player when nominations start rolling out. What brought me to Beginners is the esteemed performance of the impeccable Christopher Plummer, a role that will almost certainly warrant a Best Supporting Actor nod (and you'd have to say he's the favorite to win at this point). Always a commanding figure in each of his films, this is perhaps the best and certainly the most vulnerable. Plummer plays Hal with a double portion of charm that is only somewhat dampened by an ever-present undercurrent of shame for the distance he kept between himself and his family and the life he feels he wasted. His demeanor is happy-go-lucky and lively but his eyes convey a sense of pain and sorrow and it is this combination that makes his portrayal seem so genuine. This is a landmark performance for Plummer and one for which he deserves any and all attention that comes his way.
The rest of Beginners, however, fails to measure up to Plummer's work. Simply put, I couldn't stand to watch any of the other characters. McGregor's wary loner with childhood scars is adequate but he is routinely overshadowed by Plummer. I'm not sure if the blame for that should fall on McGregor or if he was given little to work with but in their shared scenes, I felt Plummer ran circles around him. Meanwhile, Laurent's take on the manic pixie dream girl (maybe this phenomenon doesn't work in French) annoyed the fire out of me, beginning with the early scenes in which she only communicates by writing out questions and answers on a pad of paper. I guess this is supposed to be charming but it didn't work for me. Then there's Hal's young lover Andy (Goran Visnjic), who may or may not have been retarded but I'm not sure. I truly did not understand this character. Likewise, the non-linear storyline was distracting for me and it kept Beginners from ever getting into a solid groove and even when it was working within its element, it was all a bit too boring for me. As a result, I never could invest in the characters or their interactions and the overall product suffers mightily from these shortcomings.