I have been trying to catch up on my summer indies and as I finished watching Begin Again earlier today, it struck me that the other two films I’d seen these past two weeks (The Skeleton Twins and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them) could just as easily been titled Begin Again. Each, focused as it is on a pair of characters dealing with ways of rebuilding their lives, is interested in the ways we pick up the pieces of our lives after a major heartbreak. Eleanor and Conor (Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy), Maggie and Milo (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader), and Greta and Dan (Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo) start off their respective films untethered to the lives around them. In each we open with a life-changing jump (into a river, into a tub, onto a stage) and off we are onto a funny, touching, melancholy, beautifully scored two-hander that allows these actors to mine dark places and give us six of the best performances I’ve seen this year (and no, if you’re wanting me to rank them I can’t because how do you compare Chastain’s hauntingly empty frame with Keira’s quivering lips or Wiig’s jittery nervous eyes? How do measure McAvoy’s unravelling with Hader’s lip-syncing or Ruffalo’s rocking? I mean, I guess you can, but I’m choosing not to… just yet).
Small in scope and clearly interested in the minutiae of everyday life, these three films present fascinating character sketches of adults dealing with grief, loss, depression, and the various dissatisfactions life throws our way. Other things to connect them, of course: Hader (oh so touching as a gay aspiring actor in Skeleton Twins) has a small part in Rigby, while music is as much a central piece of healing in both Skeleton Twins and Begin Again; both Rigby and Begin Again (in various ways love letters to New York City) feature a scene of successful “dine and run,” while death hovers over the back stories in Rigby and Skeleton Twins. What also binds these films together is the actressing (at the center and at its edges); Chastain, Wiig and Knightley are luminous as these broken women trying to stay afloat. Chastain, so able to command a scene (she is, after all, the motherfucker who found him) and project a steely gaze is so brittle and withered here that you can’t help but gasp at the chameleonic prowess of this impossibly brave young actress. Wiig, intent on expanding her roster of damaged characters at the brink of their own sanity, harnesses the loony voices from her SNL years into a hollow-faced ennui that is pityingly bathetic. Her Maggie can’t even crack a smile without revealing the bubbling pain underneath it. Knightley, who’s spent the best part of the last decade corseted (and dying!), finds in Carney’s improvisational, naturalist style, a looser persona, whose expressions and body language match her comfortably hipster-chic wardrobe. Hearing her voice go from a wilting whisper to a rousing rasp is a pleasure to watch.
All in all, Ned Benson (Rigby), Craig Johnson (Twins) and John Carney (Begin Again) have created great films that show us that there are stories to be told about opposite-sex couples that don’t need to depend on romance in order to explore modern relationships.These are complicated pairings. Conor and Eleanor are very much in love, but their story is about bringing them together after a harrowing loss and it is that which motivates their plot, rather than a will-they or won’t-they vibe. Milo and Maggie, as estranged twins reuniting after a suicide attempt, mine the idiosyncrasies we all find in sibling relationships from petty mood swings to knowing looks that can both irritate and amuse us. Dan and Greta (much like Carney’s Guy and Girl from Once) skirt the line between muse and lover, creating a platonic relationship that refuses to collapse their attraction into a mere love story.
These are not perfect films; they’re messy and unwieldy, at times too neatly wrapping up the very difficult plot strands they dangle in the air (a rather all-too-convenient meeting at a pool in one of them sticks out for its deus-ex-machination), and while one is impeccably cast (you really can’t go wrong signing up Viola Davis and Isabelle Huppert onto your cast), others do their best with the non-actors cast in pivotal roles (I’m looking at you, serviceable Adam Levine!) Indeed, while Rigby fascinated me, I am aching to catch the separate Him and Her, hoping the tonal shifts in Them was a side-effect of the Frankensteinean splicing. But for all these hits and misses, there are plenty of beautiful moments and I’ve fallen in love with them: Chastain and McAvoy enjoying a rain-soaked car drive, Wiig & Hader lip syncing to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” Keira and James Corden serenading Levine’s cellphone with “Like a Fool.” If you haven’t caught them, you should do yourself a favor and seek them out!
Previous double features:
Lilting & Tom à la Ferme
Under the Skin & Her