With his 2007 film Once, writer-director John Carney had an advantage: Stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova had worked together as the Swell Season even before the film was conceived. As a result, their performances in the movie, which eventually became a successful Broadway musical, felt natural. The same can't be said for Carney's new film Begin Again, now showing at the Cedar Lee Theatre. Like Once, it revolves around songs. But unlike Once, it doesn't feature any natural performances. And its storyline about Dan, a struggling record label exec (Mark Ruffalo) who stumbles upon Gretta (Keira Knightley), a singer he thinks could be a huge star, rings false too.
Through a series of flashbacks, the film shows how Gretta arrived in New York City with her rock star boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5's Adam Levin) with the hopes of helping him record his album. Dave's snotty A&R rep dashes those dreams, and Dave's rapid rise in popularity creates so much tension that he and Gretta split up. Gretta winds up crashing at a friend's place; she follows him to an open mic night and meets Dan, who imagines the ballad she plays with the accompaniment of a full band and pleads with her to let him produce her album. But because he's such a drunk, he no longer has the support of the label he helped found; so Dan takes to the streets and starts making "ambient" recordings of Gretta performing on rooftops and alleyways. Unlike the street corner performances in Once, these impromptu concerts don't feel natural at all. The songs are dull and there's no magic, even though Dan gets all giddy every time Gretta sings one of her dreary ballads.
The project becomes so fulfilling that it might put Dan back on the right track and enable him to reconnect with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). And when Gretta leaves a song on Dave's voicemail, he reaches out to her and attempts to get back together. The cliched dialogue — "I'm going to take you to the top!" Dan tells Gretta at one point — doesn't help matters either. Don't expect this dog to be turned into a successful Broadway play anytime soon.