Once More: Charming "Begin Again" hard to resist as a summer sleeper

Begin Again (2014)
101 min., rated R.

Sometimes, you wish the romantic comedy, one of the most hackeneyed of genres nowadays, could just rewind itself. "Begin Again," though not a traditional romantic comedy, answers that wish. Since Irish writer-director John Carney made an impression on the world with his lovely, homegrown 2006 musical "Once," how could he recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle magic again? Surprise, surprise: he retreads a man-and-woman story that worked once before. As a still-scruffy, albeit more-polished, stateside version of "Once," Carney's follow-up "Begin Again" is even more of a real-world fairy tale that engenders palpable joy in watching characters make music from scratch. Impossible not to like and mostly bucking the banal routes it could have easily taken, the film might have arrived second in line, but it offers plenty of irresistible merits of its own.

On an open-mic night in a New York City bar, lonely sometimes-songwriter-and-singer Gretta (Keira Knightley) and the separated, boozy, cigarette-smoking A&R producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) meet. Personal hardships have left them both mopers: she wants to go back home across the pond after tagging along with her up-and-coming rock star boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), who let the popularity get to his head and left her to live in the city solo, and he is sick of listening to bad demos by wannabe pop tarts as a co-founder of an indie record label. On the same day he's fired by partner Saul (Mos Def, now being credited as Yasiin Bey) and then runs out on his bar tab with his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) in tow, Dan has a breakdown and then drunkenly hears Gretta's voice on stage, quickly envisioning her song if he signed her. After some hesitance, Gretta agrees and they start recording an outdoor album all over New York City with mobile recording equipment.

Wholeheartedly written and directed by John Carney, "Begin Again" is one of those sincere, endlessly likable surprises that comes around when you stop looking. Even with just enough conflict and edge, it has the trappings of an innocuous, too-nice movie that can't wait to charm you. As if it were as easy as breathing, the film completely wins over the viewer without ever feeling like Carney and his cast are vigorously hoisting the sails and breaking a sweat. First off, it helps that the relationship between Gretta and Dan is kept refreshingly platonic. The film knows a romance can't develop and it never pretends that it's going to pull that disingenuous turn. Gretta and Dan are both upfront with one another upon meeting; she's not "Judy Garland just off a Greyhound looking for stardom" but someone who refuses to sell her soul for record sales, and he's a self-destructive mess who can recognize bona fide talent but doesn't quite see eye to eye with his former partner anymore. The elliptical structure in how both singer-songwriter and producer meet is also refreshingly less common, beginning twice from both perspectives and chronicling what lead up to that open-mic night.  

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo are perfectly cast. They are both playing characters we have met before in a story that's been told before, but they have something together that feels lived-in and a little more fresh somehow. Besides making Gretta sympathetic and delightful to be around without feeling sorry for herself, Knightley also gets to sing. This is a fine showcase for the actress' untapped vocals, which are sweet, raw and not auto-tuned. Her modest voice is germane to the point of the character and the film; it's more about sticking to your guts and putting one's heart and soul into music than topping the charts and compromising oneself. As Dan, Ruffalo knows how to play mildly despicable and then organically show his softer side, so we can still care what happens to him. The way his relationship with daughter Violet (the always-appealing Steinfeld) and his ex-wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), after 18 years, isn't completely soaked in cliché, as they hold an equally easygoing and prickly partnership. In his feature debut, musical vocalist Adam Levine has a watchable naturalism, which must come with being a performer on stage all the time, and the writing luckily doesn't pigeonhole him as a bad guy or a douchey caricature but as a rising star who puts his career first and quickly falls for the perks of on-the-road stardom. In supporting roles, James Corden is lovable as Gretta's starving-artist Brit friend who gives her a couch to sleep on after she leaves Dave; and R&B artist CeeLo Green has an amusing appearance, definitely in his element here as famous rapper Troublegum who does a favor for Dan and Gretta.

Maybe "Begin Again" works so well because of its pleasant, unassuming goals, so it rarely takes any noticeably wrong steps. Does it seem a little too easy that Gretta, Dan & Co. can produce an album in an alleyway, subway and on a rooftop in a fast amount of time? Perhaps, but John Carney makes it all believable enough (yes, the cops do chase them out of the subway). The songs don't pull out a "Falling Slowly" like in "Once," but cumulatively, they're all of the easy-listening, toe-tapping variety (including "Lost Stars," "Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home" and "Coming Up Roses") and that they're composed by '90s band New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander might point to why. All of the recording scenes are brimming with spontaneity and creative juices, and sometimes, they play out until the end of a song without losing any energy. Also, the montage where Dan and Gretta share each other's iPod playlists, both plugged in with ear buds, through the city from the glittery Times Square to a nightclub and Columbus Circle is dreamy magic. It's a cozy, steadfastly charming little number that breezes by and never tries too hard to please. This summer sleeper is, oh, so adorable and actually worthy of that usually dreaded "feel-good" label.

Grade: B +