Beginners (Movie) written and directed by Mike Mills; starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent and Goran Visnjic; with Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos and Kai Lennox.
It’s a warm summer day. Perfect for a light-hearted, amusing movie. From the previews, you know the story’s
going to be just edgy enough to give you the feeling that you're watching something really up to the moment: a forty-ish son
is trying to cope with the fact that his dad has just announced that he’s gay. You settle into the air-conditioned theatre
figuring that this is going to be an easy review to write. You’ll just say that, as expected, it’s a pleasant
summer movie, sort of a twenty-first century sitcom/farce.
Except that it isn’t.
What you’re getting is a mood piece, not a comedy. It moves slowly. All the stuff about the dad, Hal, is in
flashback. Hal (Christopher Plummer) has died of cancer and the son, Oliver, (Ewan McGregor) is thinking back on it all, trying
to understand. Oliver has inherited Arthur, the dad’s Jack Russell terrier and Oliver explains a lot in voice-over to
Arthur. Mostly about how perplexing life is. Turns out Arthur and Oliver have this amazing communication; sort of a mind-reading
thing. For those of us who aren’t on the same wave length, subtitles occasionally spell out Arthur’s thoughts.
The dog is definitely picturesque and attentive, a gentle on-screen presence. Every shot of him brought waves of affectionate
response from many viewers at the showing I attended. When his subtitles appeared, the level of hilarity among his fans made
it clear that they were having one hell of a good time.
The rest of us may have remained somewhat less enthusiastic. Cool, you might say. Even puzzled. It’s not that I was
expecting something quite as hilarious as an update of La Cage aux Folles (or Birdcage, the Hollywood version),
with the sexual orientation switched generationally, but it was hard to catch the drift of this somewhat diffuse offering.
Yes, it was mildly interesting to see the son trying to deal with the dad’s coming out. When Oliver’s watching
the gay carry-on, the look on Ewan McGregor’s face hovers somewhere between consternation and admiration, a very believable
combination. When the dad belatedly gets to explain a few things about his past and his marriage, the arc of his story takes
on a certain plausibility. And Christopher Plummer is good. (What did you expect?) While he has some poignant moments,
though, the role doesn’t offer him anywhere near the range that he had as Tolstoy in The Last Station. (See review,
Dilettante’s Diary page dated Feb 3/10.)
That could be – at least in part – because the gay stuff is all very bland, conventional – the friends,
the parties, the snuggling, the kissing. Maybe writer/director Mike Mills wants to show that being gay is widely accepted
now. Fine, but it doesn’t make for great drama. (I wonder how much edgier it might have been if the widower dad had
turned out to be a hetero swinger?) Only in a couple of scenes with the dad’s boyfriend, Andy, (Goran Visnjic), do you
get any hint of an insight. Mr. Visnjic is an inspired choice for the role – a tall, glamorous guy who has
an unaffected, goofy side to him – and he gets to make some intriguing speeches.
Most of the movie, however, isn’t about the dad or the gay scene. It’s about Oliver’s faltering
relationship with Anna, a gorgeous French movie actress. They meet in a rather odd context: it’s a costume party where
he’s playing Freud and she flops down on the couch for an analysis. It transpires on her part by notepad because she
has laryngitis. That sets the tone for a kooky affair in which there’s a lot of mystery about her. One of the biggest
mysteries for me is how the woman makes any money. She stays in swanky hotels but never seems to do any filming. She’s
always available for romps around the city with Oliver. They do the usual lover things like prowling old bookstores. And some
not so usual ones like roller skating down the carpeted hallways of her swanky hotel. One of their most engaging scenes has
them on phones on either side of her bed, Anna playing the part of her dad and Oliver playing the part of Anna – this
by way of explaining why her dad bugs her with his frequent phone calls.
In the role of Anna, Mélanie Laurent exudes charm and beauty. (Think of the beguiling
accent and manners of Juliette Binoche with the looks of a Playmate of the Month.) The affair is accompanied by tinny background
piano music that has an early 20th century sound. Possibly ragtime? I’m guessing it’s meant to give
the proceedings a kind of coy, idiosyncratic feel. But I kept wondering: what is the point of it all? What message are we
supposed to take away from this movie? It all seems kind of amorphous and vague. About half-way into the movie, it hit me
that maybe what it’s all about is the contrast between Oliver’s situation and his dad’s. The old guy manages
to find love and fun quite easily, but the son’s hung-up on that score. He’s apparently a very successful
graphic designer but, when a rock band asks him for a CD cover, he keeps coming up with sad motifs instead of the expected
Through Oliver’s mulling over his childhood (with excellent help from Keegan Boos as the young Oliver and Mary Page
Keller as a disgruntled mom) we do eventually find out what’s bothering Oliver and why commitment seems impossible for
him. Instead of providing any great satisfaction, though, the answer seems a trifle simplistic.
CC: Some low-key human interest but rather underwhelming on the whole.
Bossypants (Memoir) by Tina Fey, 2011
You may be surprised to see this review in Dilettante’s Diary. I mean, how does a guy who doesn’t watch
tv know enough about Tina Fey to want to read her memoir?
Well, I’ve heard of her. I remember all the hype about her Sarah Palin shtick in the 2008 US election. Plus, enough
of Ms. Fey’s writings (excerpts from this book in fact) have appeared in The New Yorker to make her name register.
And, if the truth must be told, I once caught about five minutes of 30 Rock while passing through the tv room. Come
to think of it, a New Yorker profile of Alec Baldwin a couple of years ago told me enough about that program to make
me want to know more about its originator .
As hoped for, the laughs are here – plenty of them. The book’s part memoir, part social commentary, part humorous
essay. Some of the funniest bits can’t be quoted – not just because they’re too dirty for my readers –
but because they’re photos. Like the two that supposedly show Ms. Tey before and after Photoshopping. Apart from the
laugh-out-loud stuff, the droll comments appeal to me a lot. Like this one, when she’s talking about the necessity of
having a "Buffer" at Christmas parties: "A Buffer is a neutral party who keeps the conversation light. Everyone needs a Buffer.
You don’t think Mary and Joseph were psyched to see the Little Drummer Boy?"
And this, when she’s wondering about getting pregnant again:
....I feel obligated to stay in the business and try hard to get to a place where I can create opportunities for others,
and that’s why I can’t possibly take time off for a second baby, unless I do, in which case that is nobody’s
business and I’ll never regret it for a moment unless it ruins my life.
Self-deprecation plays a vital role in her humour:
Some may argue that exploiting Governor Palin and her family helped bring attention to my low-rated TV show. I am proud
to say you are wrong. My TV show still enjoys very low ratings.
Of course, the most important thing about humour is the way language is used. Like David Sedaris, Ms. Fey has mastered
the use of breezy, slangy contemporary lingo. (To do that while stringing together coherent sentences is harder than you think.)
One of the best examples:
In my experience, the hardest thing about having someone "come out" to you is the "pretending to be surprised" part. You
want him to feel like what he’s telling you is Big. It’s like, if somebody tells you they’re pregnant, you
don’t say, "I did notice you’ve been eating like a hog lately." Your gay friend has obviously made a big decision
to say the words out loud. You don’t want him to realize that everybody’s known this since he was ten and he wanted
to be Bert Lahr for Halloween. Not the Cowardly Lion, but Bert Lahr. "Oh, my gosh, no waaaay?" You stall, trying to
think of something more substantial to say. "Is everyone, like, freaking out? What a ... wow."
No doubt, you noticed the feel for character, for human foibles, in the above passage. That’s another of Ms. Fey’s
gifts. In terms of knowing one’s own failings, the following passage made me feel a strong sense of friendly identification
with the author. She’s talking about an emergency on a cruise ship when a fire broke out. The crisis has now passed
but not for her:
While people around me start to relax, I keep my eyes on the sea, waiting to be rocketed into it on a wave of fire. I’ll
be ready for it to happen and that way it won’t happen. It’s a burden, being able to control situations with my
hyper-vigilance, but it’s my lot in life.
In spite of her slap-dash style, Ms. Fey manages to convey some substantial chunks of information. I found her explanation
of good improv acting really enlightening. Her praise for Saturday Night Live maestro Lorne Michaels might seem like
sucking up – except that what she says about him makes for an essay on great management style. What’s more, the
compliments sound genuine. Nor does the breezy tone disguise a deft hand with narrative. Sections about the
development of 30 Rock, for instance, read as page-turning material. (Well, after all, tv writers do tell stories,
don’t they?) That section of the book does, however, present a few problems for non-tv-viewers. Snippets from scripts
and references to the characters’ funny qualities don’t mean much to somebody who’s only seen five minutes
of the show.
The most surprising thing about the book, for me, is the way Ms. Fey can sneak in more serious content here and there.
For instance, when she’s talking about her dad. She’s obviously bemused by his Republicanism but you can’t
help being touched by the daughter’s fondness for this man’s-man kind of guy. She also makes a good
point when she counters criticism that her Sarah Palin shtick was too hard-hitting: "I am not mean and Mrs. Palin is
not fragile. To imply otherwise is a disservice to us both." An even more striking example of a conscience at work comes when
Ms. Fey’s talking about the summertime theatre group she enjoyed when she was a teen. About the gay males who flocked
to the program and the man who started it, she says: "They had a place where they belonged, and, even if it was because he
didn’t want to deal with their being different, he didn’t treat them any differently. Which I think is a pretty
successful implementation of Christianity."
From which, do not get the impression that the book’s all high-minded. Some of it’s pretty gross. It would
be lying not to admit that I’m old enough to be uncomfortable with some of the sexual and anatomical candour. (I think
Ms. Fey would want me to be honest about this and not pretend to be cooler than I am.) Some of the most offensive –
and wickedly witty – cracks come in her emails to imaginary letters of complaint about her oeuvre.
And yet, the book ends with a resounding declaration of Ms. Fey’s commitment to mothering. So help me, I couldn’t stop
thinking of Jean Kerr, the Queen of Humour Writing in the 1950s and 60s. No matter how outrageous her comments, you knew this
smartass, wise-cracking woman’s heart was in the right place. As with Ms. Fey. Her prayer for her five-year-old
daughter begins with a plea to the Lord not to let the child’s beautiful skin ever be disfigured by tattoos. And the
prayer goes on: "Lead her away from acting but not all the way to Finance.....May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of
her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers."
The chapter ends with this image of her daughter one day on the floor with her own child who’s just done a really
"My mother did this for me once," she will realize as she cleans feces off her baby’s neck. "My mother did this for
me." And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And
she will forget....But I’ll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes."