There's a genre of romantic comedy perfected by Woody Allen in Annie Hall that, when done right, can make you feel not just happy but liberated. It's philosophical and free-form, jumping around in time, indulging in flights of fantasy like a first-person comic novel. With Beginners, Mike Mills puts himself in a league with Allen and Charlie Kaufman; his movie is marvelously inventive, and all those inventions -- flashbacks, slide shows, even a telepathic Jack Russell terrier with subtitled dialogue -- pull you deep into the mind of its tortured hero.
Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a commercial illustrator who, as Beginners begins, is cleaning out the house of his late father, Hal -- who, like Mills' own father, came out as gay when his wife of more than four decades died. Hal is played in flashbacks woven all through the film by Christopher Plummer -- but not the sinister Plummer you might recall from so many roles. He's light and lithe, joyously uncomplicated, buoyed by his new life in the open.
He doesn't brood about the past. He doesn't worry too much that his hunky younger lover, Andy, played by Goran Visjnic, is emotionally unstable, or that he likes to sleep with other guys. When he receives the news of his terminal cancer, Plummer's Hal silently takes it, then tells Oliver, "Let's not rush out and tell everyone." He'll keep the party going until the lights go out.
Later he wonders, as his son shaves him, why Oliver can't find happiness.
"Maybe you should take out a personal ad, where you can explain your situation," he says.
"My situation?" asks Oliver.
"Yeah, you want to be in a relationship and you can't stay in one," replies his father.
"That's your fatherly advice? Personal ads?"
"Well, a lot of people use them," says his father. "I did."
McGregor watches Plummer with plainly muddled emotions: love, pride, quiet resentment over Oliver's late mother, who suffered for reasons that are only now apparent. It's a remarkably centered performance, giving truth to the suggestion I've heard that McGregor is the best film leading man of his generation as long as the budget is below $20 million. Oliver's first encounter at a costume party with Anna (Melanie Laurent, who played Shoshanna in Inglourious Basterds) isn't just meet cute. It's meet omigod the cutest ever.
Luarent's Anna, an actress from France, is flirty and whimsical and very funny. But director Mills also wants you to see, little by little, that she has her own family issues and is better at play-acting than being. She tells Oliver after they sleep together that she likes that he doesn't really know her.
This great comedy is steeped in sadness and loss and holds a complicated view of the forces that determine our ability to bond. Oliver grew up in a family of secrets, and those secrets had a lot to do with the social norms he presents to us via archetypal photos of the era -- little narrated slide shows of Americana. That was an America in which his father wanted to live and have a family, even if it meant keeping his sexuality under wraps.
And don't get Oliver started on the problem of his genes. There's a great scene in which he explains to Arthur, the Jack Russell terrier he inherited from his father, that Arthur doesn't really want to chase other animals. It's just that Jack Russells were bred to hunt foxes, and hence Arthur's personality was created for him. (It's a nice touch when Oliver adds that, on account of their adorableness, Jack Russells show up in a lot of movies.)
Arthur might have stolen this one were it not for a cast that inspires you to empty out your bag of superlatives — not just Plummer, McGregor and Laurent, but also Mary Page Keller in flashbacks as Oliver's seething mom, and Visjnic, who makes Hal's hunky lover both endearing and unnerving.
Beginners loses some of its charm as Oliver and Anna grow too close for their comfort. But that's also the point where the title of the movie makes sense. They're part of a generation, says Oliver, that doesn't have to hide, that has the luxury to wallow in unhappiness. And they're relationship neophytes. What a glorious way to end a comedy: just when it has to get serious. (Recommended) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.