The title of Mike Mills’ 2005 feature film Thumbsucker was full of infantilism, nostalgia and retirement. There are a lot of all three in his sweet new romantic comedy about bad timing. It’s got something Annie Hall in her edgy romance played out with montages, voiceovers and subtitle / translation gags, and a few Anglo-Godardian riffs edited with stills, and a man, a woman, and a dog forming their own group apart as they frolic excitingly around Los Angeles. For some, the level of weirdness can be set too high and it is sometimes a little weak in its sophistication, but that sophistication feels pretty real to me; it’s a poignant, high-level independent image, and the debates are supported by a warm performance by Christopher Plummer.
Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a thirty-something graphic designer specializing in ironic cartoon images – wan, passive-aggressive, and strangely unsatisfying humor. Mills may have created this career identity for Oliver in part as a way to absorb or anticipate objections that his own style of filmmaking is like this. Oliver tries to sell an elaborate cartoon flyer concept to a rock band who – utterly exasperated – wants them to only design a simple cover for their new CD. (We are in 2003.)
Oliver’s father, Hal (Plummer), a retired art historian and museum director, has just died of cancer at the age of 79. The opening scenes of the film show Oliver cleaning up his father’s house and nervously taking possession of his father’s beloved, Jack Russell. terrier, Arthur. Four years before that, Oliver’s mother died of cancer, and that’s when his widowed father revealed himself to his son, and to the world, as a gay man. He had been gay his entire life as a couple, Hal tells Oliver. The son recalls these revelations in a flashback, and remembers his father’s totally loose demeanor and his relaxed and enthusiastic embrace of the gay scene and a new non-exclusive gay lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic ). In other flashback scenes, dating back to Oliver’s lonely childhood, Mills shows us Oliver’s relationship with his intelligent, unhappy, and deeply dissatisfied mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who suppressed her own Jewish identity for succeed in the world of American wasps as ruthlessly as Hal. had hidden his homosexuality. Oliver can now see how the ways of irony and wit he learned from his mother were habits of concealment, protective ways, a style that she had, consciously or not, cultivated to ignore the humiliating knowledge of her husband.
Just as poor Oliver begins to understand how messed up he is, he meets the gorgeous Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a party. Tellingly, this is a fancy dress party in which he is disguised as Freud, jokingly analyzing other characters in attendance, such as the Wicked Witch of Oz. Anna’s obvious attraction to him seems miraculous. Is she a divine childbirth of her misfortune, or does it reproduce her relationship with her mother? And did the late and fleeting contentment of his father – an old man who really only lived four years, at the end of his life – destroy his son’s chances of happiness?
Oliver is rootless, aimless: we see him slumped mirthlessly in his office lit by strip-teases creating his irritating cartoons, or haunting his late father’s house (he inherited his father’s wacky habit of say “hello home!” in silence) or in Anna’s. hotel room without relief. We rarely see him in his own messy apartment; trying to bring Anna back to her place triggers a crucial intimacy crisis. There is something opaque and undemonstrative about Oliver, and McGregor portrays that void plausibly. In a way, Beginners is a rather literary film, in which Oliver is a romantic narrator figure, a figure who notices and remembers, but appears to be an unreadable presence himself.
This is where the film fails to engage – often times you feel like grabbing McGregor’s Oliver by the shoulders and yelling: React! He doesn’t get angry with his father for condemning his mother to a life of denial and self-deception. He could of course be crippled by his father’s age, his fragility, his vulnerability, and his continued astonishment at the turn his father’s life has taken. These are completely understandable reasons. But it’s still disconcerting. There is a moment when Oliver and Anna first return to his hotel room: sitting on the bed next to him, Anna reaches out to his face, not for a hug, but gently to catch his cheeks. and her hair and usually tousle her a bit. You may also want to do this.
Despite the overwhelming cuteness of its canine persona and Plummer’s intelligent and sympathetic performance, Newbies is not a film that strives to befriend its audience from the first frames in the Hollywood way. It’s tonally elusive, cerebral, and moderate, but it’s a movie with a healthy, albeit conscious, IQ. It could be a great date movie.