I can count on no more than two hands the number of times I’ve walked out of a movie theater feeling as if I’ve experienced something rather than simply viewed something. Count me surprised that this film sang its way right onto that list.
For me, the film (from Once director and screenwriter, John Carney) captured the contradictory but often coexisting feelings of soul-crushing loneliness and inexplicable hopefulness. There is also a sense of community, of family, that permeates the film, a quality I haven’t experienced while viewing a film since 2007’s Dan in Real Life.
We’re first introduced to singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley) and alcoholic indie record executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo); Gretta’s boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), has become a rock star – with her songwriting assistance – and he inevitably strays. That’s when Dan, just fired from the record label he co-founded, happens upon an oddly-calm Gretta in a small bar singing a beautiful song about “a step you can’t take back”. Dan makes a promise that he can’t keep; Gretta balks – and so does the record label. Without a space to record her music, Gretta agrees to Dan’s so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea to record her debut album in locations all around New York City: an alleyway, the top of a building, in a canoe in Central Park, etc…
The sweetness that follows is just too much, and, yet, is just right.
There is so much that is right with this film. The screenplay and the direction allow what should be a simple, straightforward story to be infused with an air of mystery, and, in the first third of the film, the same scenes unfold incrementally several times from the perspective of different characters. The result is a feeling that we are slowly being invited into their lives as if they are new friends, and we become intimate and active viewers to their plan for a hit album. We see the dance of a budding romance, the complications of an accompanied working relationship, the personal lives that intertwine and influence the creation of music.
Another strong point the film features is a talented and valuable supporting cast in which every character has an intention and purpose. Catherine Keener, Dan’s ex-wife, Miriam, serves to keep Dan in check while his daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), serves to keep him on his heels. Mos Def makes an impression as Dan’s former business partner, and Steve (James Corden) provides support and laughter to Gretta as well as the audience. This is how a filmmaker ought to utilize a supporting cast.
This was a near-perfect film. If there is one weakness, it’s Adam Levine’s performance. It’s oddly emotionless and quite boring, really. It may not seem as awful as it truly is only because his character is also awful and boring – and in that case he got lucky. He’s also lucky that his co-stars – let’s not forget Mark Ruffalo, who always seems invested – gave such strong performances that it’s easy to forget about him.
Conversely, this also happens to feature Keira Knightley’s best performance to date. She completely captures the deepest despair we’ve all experienced at one point or another with the boundless freedom that results from the unexpected opportunity to rebuild one’s entire life. Her character makes important decisions about her relationships, her career, her sanity – and she gets them right. It’s unconventional, it’s unpredictable; it blows you away because it seems as if it never happens before in the movies. This is a smart character; this is brave storytelling, and we root for her every step of the way. I literally clenched my fist and shouted “YES!” in my head at one point. (Did I mention that she does her own singing?)
Top it off with that ending scene/shot: perfection. It just doesn’t get any more satisfying than that.
I urge you to not only see this film, but to also buy its soundtrack. May I even suggest a “splitter”?
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