When most people reach their mid 70s, they start taking it easy. Maybe they poke around Google or take up a leisurely hobby like birdwatching or scrapbooking. They’re not using their final chunk of time on this planet to find themselves or throw the lives of their loved ones into a whirlpool of WTF. In the relationship drama Beginners, retired museum director Hal (Christopher Plummer) decides that his 75th year is the perfect opportunity to tell his son that he’s gay.
Hal is already dead when the movie opens. He had cancer. His melancholy son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is packing his dad’s belongings into boxes as he tells us about his father: He got married in 1955 and remained married for 44 years. Four years after his wife died, Hal “changed all his clothes and got a boyfriend” – a very young boyfriend (played by ER‘s Goran Visnjic).
But the movie’s story – which director Mike Mills based on his dad’s life – is as much Oliver’s as Hal’s. He’s 38 years old, an illustrator living in Los Angeles, and incapable of keeping a girlfriend around for long. He spends most of his free time talking to his late dad’s dog. He’s also perpetually sad, drawing gloomy pictures and thinking about conversations he had with his father.
They have a great relationship, before and after Hal comes out. (Though curiously, or maybe not so, Hal is absent in the scenes with a young Oliver and his mom.) Oliver explains to his dad what house music is and later, when Hal is in the hospital, he reads to him. He even helps Hal organize bookshelves in the middle of the night when the medicated mood strikes.
The parallels between Oliver new beginnings and his dad’s become evident when Oliver meets budding actress Anna (Inglourious Basterds‘ Mélanie Laurent) at a party. As their relationship develops, Hal’s post-coming-out story unspools in flashback, and we meet his friends, learn what he loves, and get a glimpse of the sly humor he shares with his son.
Beginners never pushes its issues. In fact, it doesn’t push much. It tells the stories of two men: their similarities, their differences, their openness, their shutting down of emotions. It’s a story about making the most of time — Oliver with his dying dad, Hal with his friends, and Oliver with Anna, who’s in L.A. for only a month. And it’s a story about time itself, particularly how Hal, who has no regrets about his past, wasn’t allowed to be gay in the ’50s (or the ’60s or ’70s, for that matter).
Still, the movie doesn’t quite connect, despite a few sweet moments and subtle, loving performances by both McGregor and Plummer, who make the most of the occasionally flimsy material. There are some affecting scenes, but they don’t add up to much. For a movie about old beginnings, new beginnings, and endings, there isn’t a whole lot happening in the middle.