No disease. No teens dying. And yet Begin Again, from writer-director John Carney (the Irish dream-weaver of Once), hits the summer sweet spot by breezing in on waves of humor, heartache and ravishing romance. And irresistible music you can't get out of your head. Sure, Carney is redoing Once with bigger stars and a richer budget. Amazingly, you don't hate him for pulling it off.
Begin Again wins you over by not overplaying its hand, allowing some feelings to go unexpressed. Dan, the record producer played by Mark Ruffalo with such unforced charm and bruised emotion, has a sinking boat of a career – his partner Saul (Mos Def, excellent) has canned him from his own company. Dan's music-journalist wife (Catherine Keener) has left him. And their teen daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) doesn't buy his shit. No wonder Dan has been staring longingly at subway tracks.
One night in New York, Dan stumbles into a bar. And there she is, Greta (Keira Knightley), a Brit songwriter whose hesitant guitar-playing and vocal delivery evoke audience yawns. But the lyrics Greta carves out of a broken love affair speak directly to Dan's own crisis. And so he produces Greta's song in his head, allowing Carney to stage a scene of surreal, enchanting loveliness.
Go ahead, finish the script yourself. Dan will make Greta a star and they will fall in love. Happy ending. Fade to uplift. Not so fast. Though Dan raises the funds to record Greta's album live in various New York locations, the remnants of their real lives are not easily left behind. Dan wrecked a good marriage. Greta lived for five years with songwriter Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) until fame made him a cheating asshole.
Knightley, whose small voice is surprisingly soulful, is at her best. And Levine, of Maroon 5, is startlingly good, tackling the role without a cheesy grab for sympathy. Levine is revelatory in the scene in which Dave tries to win back Greta by performing one of her songs, "Lost Stars," clueless that his embroidered version clashes with the purity Greta strives for.
It's rare to find a movie that uses music to define love without sentimentalizing it. But Begin Again, with songs by Glen Hansard and New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander, is a wonderfully appealing exception. Ruffalo and Knightley perform subtle magic. On a bench, ear buds in and lost in the music, they forge an intimacy you can't pin down. Begin Again is a wisp of a movie. But it can wipe you out.