In Beginners, we meet Oliver as he is cleaning up his father's bungalow and dumping Dad's prescription pill supply down the toilet. His father has died, and we can see in Ewan McGregor's face that this is but the latest blow to a guy who hasn't been happy in a very long time.
Maybe his father was the same way. But in flashbacks, we see Dad (Christopher Plummer), in his 70s, having a chat with his son. Dad tells his son that he is gay. "I want to explore this side of myself," he declares. "I want to do something about it."
We come to see that he — and his son after him — are both beginners at this business of finding, keeping and cherishing love. Thumbsucker writer-director Mike Mills has made what in other hands would have been a farce: Dad discovering his sexuality at an age when only little blue pills can make that sexuality viable. Beginners is more of a melancholy exploration of love, loss and discovering one's emotional availability or lack of it.
Mills skips through time, suggesting the perfunctory and almost sexless marriage Oliver's parents shared, Mom's death, Dad's post- coming-out frolics and Oliver's sad-faced way of processing it all.
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Then some friends from work (Oliver is a graphic artist who does album covers) drag him to a costume party. He's dressed as Freud, and he is obviously a gloomy Gus. But this stunning young blonde (Mélanie Laurent) who has lost her voice flirts with him through gestures and notes. She has Dr. Freud on the couch and on the ropes in no time. Might a relationship follow?
Not so fast. Remember Dad's one big criticism: "You always have a good reason for not being with someone."
Mills charts the ebb and flow of this affair in his unhurried way, taking time to get to know Dad's dippy last boyfriend and letting Oliver grow more perplexed at this romantic marvel that has fallen into his lap — or couch.
"This is embarrassing. I'm 38 and falling for a girl again. It's like I lost the instructions."
McGregor is reliably morose, and Plummer, in the flashbacks, gives the father a matter-of-fact bluntness that is his charm. Plummer is that rare actor lucky enough to manage half a century of undiminished dash and élan onscreen.
And Laurent wistfully suggests an unlikely love worth changing for. French film actresses, such as the one she plays, don't pop into working-class parties and fall for some forlorn soul disguised as Freud.
Beginners is warm and revealing and bittersweet, if a trifle all over the place stylistically and thematically. It's no closer to a great film than Thumbsucker was, but it is easy to watch and digest, and it is particularly easy to see what this fine cast saw in it to make them want to make it.