When his wife dies after 45 years of marriage, a repressed gay widower comes out of the closet at age 75, finds a young boyfriend, shocks his grown son speechless with his new declaration of independence, and enjoys the first brief period of happiness in his wasted life before he dies of lung cancer, four years later. This is the autobiographical premise of Beginners, based on the real-life experiences of writer-director Mike Mills, told with understated warmth and compassion, and featuring an exemplary cast. It has nuance, but jumping around in time and space, it often lacks the fluidity necessary to hold interest. Mainly it succeeds because of the honest, heartfelt power of the relationship between the father Hal (Christopher Plummer) and his 38-year-old son Oliver (Ewan McGregor).
The film opens in 2003, after Hal has died, leaving his baffled but grief-stricken son to cope with the events of what has happened during the past four years. Like a cantilevered terrace, the structure shifts back and forth from Hal’s death to his emancipation, showing Oliver adjusting to his father’s new identity as he shops for house plants and colorful clothes, marches in the L.A. gay pride parade, finds a gay priest to absolve him of his guilt and falls in love with a charming younger man (the handsome Croatian actor Goran Visnjic from the cast of ER).
Plummer, considered miscast by many, meets the challenge of playing a lonely, grieving old homosexual who is forced to change not only his lifestyle but his attitudes toward a new generation of gay liberationists that passed him by, with total conviction. At 80, he is still quite dashing, and completely believable as an elderly playboy. The vigor with which he attacks life after 75 is touching and funny and charming and innocent. He has panache, mixed with a refreshing honesty as an actor that makes it easy for him to play whatever is given to him on the printed page without the kind of limp-wristed embellishment Jim Carrey used to wreck I Love You, Phillip Morris.
McGregor makes an equally likeable son. Doing whatever he can to avoid ending up like his father, he has always avoided marriage and is no good at relationships of any kind, but just as his dad searched for a new beginning, so does the son. His sole companion becomes his father’s Jack Russell named Arthur, who understands 150 words but cannot talk, although his thoughts appear as onscreen subtitles. Thus the scenes set in 2003 take on a whimsical tone in a minor key that often interferes with the melody of the otherwise sensitive narrative.
Scenes of Hal’s devotion to his boyfriend and Oliver’s growing closeness to his father are annoyingly interspersed with Oliver’s attempts to open up his own life to an actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent). Oliver’s pursuit of Anna is juxtaposed with Hal’s attempts to ignore his stage-four cancer diagnosis while shopping for CDs, haunting Staples, and re-writing the Bible while he tries to analyze the sad years he squandered living a lie. The role of Hal is not written well enough to provide much inspiration, but Plummer gives it his best shot. Visnjic is the most miscast actor in the film, but he is very good as a slightly ditsy muscle boy.
Even the clichés in this warm mood piece seem unpredictable and without contrivance. The best thing about Beginners is the way it accepts every character in a nonjudgmental way. They open up, coming out of their shells in time to surpass their own limitations, and discovering that when it comes to love we’re all beginners. You leave feeling good about them, and about yourself.