As an aging man cuts loose, his introverted son struggles with romance.
For Hal, life begins at 75. His wife has died after 45 years of marriage, and the long-closeted gay widower emerges from decades of repression to celebrate his new identity openly and joyfully. For Oliver, Hal's melancholy son, life hasn't yet begun at 38. He has had a string of dead-end relationships, perhaps because his parents' union, while loving, was not the ideal heterosexual role model. While trying to digest his father's emancipation as a dapper playboy, Oliver remains insecure, uncertain and emotionally unavailable.
"Beginners" is a double portrait of a vital older man and his introverted fuddy-duddy son. Even when Hal learns that he has terminal cancer, he refuses to stop living, pursuing a passionate and honest relationship with a boyfriend who prefers older men, while Oliver founders at romance. It's an intriguing premise weighed down by its maudlin tone, choppy, disjointed timeline and formless direction. Watching the film is like spending two hours consuming fat, sugary doughnuts of self-pity.
The film opens in 2003 after Hal's death, as Oliver cleans out his father's house and adopts his clever Jack Russell terrier, Arthur. Oliver gives the dog a tour of his drab apartment, and confides in him throughout the film. In thoughts that appear as onscreen subtitles, Arthur claims to understand 150 words, but his commentary on Oliver's stumbling attempts at finding a lasting relationship indicate a lot more intelligence. This odd magical embellishment is never explained or justified in a film that is otherwise realistic verging on humdrum.
In the tumultuous months after Hal's death, Oliver mourns the father he scarcely knew, creates depressive graphic art for a rock band (his concept is "the history of sadness") and pursues Anna, a French actress with family issues of her own. They are so gosh-darned free-spirited that they go on dates where they spray-paint billboards and roller-skate through hotel lobbies. Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent seem more like solid actors than real-life lovebirds in these precious scenes; Christopher Plummer is more convincing as the old man reveling in his life's finale. The memory-lane soundtrack, featuring Hoagy Carmichael, Jelly Roll Morton and Mamie Smith, adds to the atmosphere of cloying whimsy.