“Begin Again” Casting Review

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Although Begin Again isn’t a direct sequel to the film Once, it very much feels like its appropriate spiritual successor as it contains many of the elements people loved from the former film while casting a wider, more commercial net to please moviegoers of all demographics. Written and directed by John Carney, the same man behind Once, Begin Again is the story about love and relationships set in the backdrop of the music industry in New York.

The story opens on a down-and-out British woman named “Gretta”, sulking in her misery during an open mic night at a local NY bar. She’s asked by her fellow British friend “Steve” to play a song, and after a little prodding, she acquiesces. Veteran crossover actress Keira Knightley plays the damsel, and although we’ve seen her work in films for a while now, even I was a bit surprised to see (and hear) her get up on that stage and sing. As Gretta conveys her feelings through song she captures the attention of “Dan”, a fellow downtrodden individual who happens to be a music executive / record producer, and is played by Mark Ruffalo. The story takes off from there, and we come to learn that Ruffalo’s Dan was recently fired by the label he helped form due to the lack of new clients he was bringing in, as well as his temper and stubborn behavior. Dan is also currently separated from his wife “Miriam” (played by Catherine Keener), and has to juggle part-time parenting duties with his teenage daughter “Violet” (played by Hailee Steinfeld), which only further complicates his life.

On the opposite side of the coin, Gretta’s journey initially begins when she moves to New York with her musician boyfriend “Dave”, who, at the time, was on the verge of breaking out in a big way. Although Gretta fancies herself a musician as well, she’s very much in New York just as Dave’s girlfriend, which ultimately blows up in her face when Dave reveals that he cheated on her and wants to end their relationship. Dave is played by Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine, and is perfectly suited for the role as the boyfriend-turned-famous asshole. This role specifically calls for not only a handsome leading man, but also an incredible singer, so casting a crossover artist like Levine is the ideal get. This isn’t Levine’s first foray into acting, either, and he’s had fun acting bits in shows like 30 Rock, American Horror Story, and SNL. Admittedly, Levine isn’t as seasoned an actor as fellow crossover artists like Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce Knowles, or Academy Award-winning singer/actress Jennifer Hudson, but if he continues to challenge himself with new and different acting roles, he certainly has all the right ingredients for triple threat greatness.

Getting back to the story: after Gretta is dumped, she contemplates whether or not she even wants to stay in New York. Thankfully, she finds support in her friend, Steve. Steve is played by British actor James Corden, and although he’s very well known in the U.K., he is still probably considered an up-and-comer in the U.S. Corden is an incredibly diverse and talented actor (he’s performed on shows like Britain’s Got Talent, is taking over for Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show, and sings in Begin Again, too), so expect to see him in more American projects in the near future. Steve takes Gretta in, and helps encourage her to pursue her own music, which is what ultimately leads her to singing in the NY bar where Dan discovers her. Dan also encourages Gretta to pursue her craft, and they hatch a plan to record an album using New York as their studio, i.e., recording each song from the album in different locations throughout the city.

With their plan in motion, Gretta and Dan bring together a makeshift band, and set out on their creative musical journey. Of course ,the story here is much more than just the creation of a music record, and as Gretta and Dan continue to work together, they develop a close bond which ultimately helps to color and shape their personal lives. Gretta helps Dan become closer with his estranged daughter while Dan (as well as Steve) helps give Gretta the courage to take ownership of her music, stand up to her ex, and get closure on their relationship.

Once again, Knightley has been working in mainstream U.S. productions for a while now, but even I was pleasantly surprised to see her playing a role that is a bit lighter than some of the heavier, more dramatic projects she’s been in as of late. The fact that Knightley also sings throughout the entire film is even more impressive, and it’s always nice to see sides of actors that you never knew existed. Conversely, Ruffalo’s turn as Dan is nothing we haven’t seen from the actor. Ruffalo is known for playing intense and quirky characters, and his work in Begin Again isn’t anything that different from his previous work–especially in recent projects like The Normal Heart and Infinitely Polar Bear. This isn’t to diminish his performance here by any means, and Ruffalo’s Dan is perfectly acted–exactly what you’d expect from the award-winning actor.

Dan’s estranged wife and daughter also deserve kudos, and Keener and Steinfeld also put in noteworthy performances. Keener is well-matched as Dan’s wife, and she has all the acting chops and experience to equally go toe-to-toe with Ruffalo, which not very many actresses can do. Keener also co-starred with Ruffalo in 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are, so they have that fun connection, too. Steinfeld has been coming into her own as a young actress, and has been steadily working in a wide variety of interesting projects and roles ever since her breakout part in 2010’s True Grit, which she shot when she was barely a teenager. Amusingly, Steinfeld’s role in Begin Again is a part where she can be pretty natural. Her Violet is your typical rebellious high school teenager who, deep down, just wants the attention from her father. Considering that Steinfeld is literally the age of a high school teen, this part is great for her. It’s also nice to see young actors actually play roles that seem realistic to their actual age. More often than not, actors who happen to be minors tend to play parts that are vastly fictionalized or overly-mature, e.g., the lead actors from the Harry Potter movie franchise played grade school kids who happened to be wizards and used their magic to stop evil, or Neil Patrick Harris’ Doogie Howser, M.D., a 16-year-old genius who becomes a doctor. Because of fantastical roles like these, it’s just refreshing to see a teenaged actress like Steinfeld play a normal teenage girl.

Finally, two other actors that deserve a shout out in Begin Again are Mos Def and CeeLo Green, who play the roles of “Saul” and “Troublegum”, respectively. Saul is Dan’s business partner, and was actually the one who instigated firing Dan. Def is another successful crossover actor and initially started out in hip-hop music as a performer before really making a name for himself as a serious thespian. Green’s “Troublegum” is an established recording artist whose career was developed by Ruffalo’s Dan. Although Troublegum is a fictional character, he’s basically CeeLo Green with a different name, which is definitely a GOOD thing. If you’ve seen Green on The Voice, you’ll know that he has a very charismatic, larger than life personality so it only makes sense for him to play a version of himself in this movie.

Begin Again has all the right elements going for it. It has a fun cast that’s well-balanced between acting veterans, up and comers, and crossover talent; a unique storytelling format, and of course, a killer soundtrack. Similarly to John Carney’s Once, if you’re a fan of Begin Again, you’ll probably want to pick up a copy of the soundtrack and blast it on repeat for a while after watching this film.

 

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Kyle