Once was enough. Twice is pushing it. The writer-director of that phenomenally popular 2006 musical romance, John Carney, can’t be blamed very much for floating a lookalike proposition, but his new one, Begin Again, suffers from other things than the typical sophomore slump.
As before, a pair of star-crossed would-be lovers is united by love songs. Greta (Keira Knightley), a slender-voiced singer-songwriter firmly in the shadow of her up-and-coming pop singer boyfriend Dave (high-pitched warbler Adam Levine), finds herself left behind in Manhattan when Dave dumps her for someone else and takes off on his new concert tour. Coincidentally, she catches the attention of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), also on the rebound.
Dan’s an easy nut to crack, a once-wizardly record label founder and A&R man, now burned out and short on ideas after breaking up, however amiably, with his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and their bright but hard-to-reach teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). One night, tipsy Dan witnesses Greta’s awkward solo guest shot at a club and falls hard. He recognizes her possibilities. Together, they can go places and do things.
Greta and her acoustic guitar are inoffensive enough in themselves, with Knightley doing her own vocalizing and plunking. The songs in the film, variously written by director Carney, Gregg Alexander, and five other songwriters including Glen Hansard from Once, are the sort of unremarkable huggy ditties that might be performed solemnly at weddings — but only this summer, and only if the movie sells sufficient tickets. Greta may be making treacle, but starmaker Dan knows how to turn it into a commercial brand of treacle. Surprise art-house hit Once set the bar by becoming a Tony-award-winning Broadway musical, so Begin Again is presumably saddled with similar expectations. We’re in the realm of such aggressive harmlessness that everything Greta and Dan do, from a recording session in an alley to huddling with Dan’s music-biz cohorts (played by Mos Def and CeeLo Green), looks over-produced, sanitized, and polished to a dull sheen.
Likewise, the New York City characters inhabit bears a close resemblance to the tourist paradise depicted in the recent Chinese Puzzle, steam-cleaned and date-movie-approved. No real danger here. Blue skies up above, everyone’s in love. We see our path through it immediately. Ruffalo handles his hangdog role — drunk, broke, rejected, outmoded — with veteran ease and Knightley keeps her jaw-clenching to a blessed minimum.
Greta relates to Violet with a little bit of girl talk, warming Dad’s heart. Meanwhile Dan can’t get over his Boomer thing. Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra (on Greta’s playlists) take over for the urban lyrical interludes. The third act is a little weak. Young Ms. Steinfeld whips out a guitar fill to be proud of, if it was actually her doing the playing. We witness a plucky variation on the “Hey gang, let’s all make a hit record!” scenario and come out of it a tad lighter in the loafers. Cuddly tunes, friendly faces, a zenith of namby-pamby-ness. Ten minutes later it’s a dim memory.