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Begin Again is the type of movie that comes with a set of instructions: Pre-heat oven to 400°. Mix divorce, heartbreak, success, failure and teen angst in a bowl while stirring in heavy doses of music. Cook for 104 minutes or until golden brown. Your film is now done and ready to enjoy!

What you see is what you get. Alcoholism is communicated via bottle: whiskey on the table and a beer in the fridge. You don’t get to witness any of the debilitation or struggle that comes with it. An empty drink is supposed to fill the gap. This is like journeying through South America and filming the mosquito bites. Or, you know, casting Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine as a pop star and covering all the tattoos.

Director/Writer John Carney is a good enough cook to blend his ingredients just right without getting into the complicated stuff. He knows when to flip the dish and what to stuff it with, and sometimes he’ll throw in a dash of spice to give it a kick. It may not turn out perfect, but he’s put enough love and time into it to make a good meal out of it.

Luckily for Carney, it’s hard to screw anything up when your main dish is a 5« serving of Mark Ruffalo. No, he’s not doing any detective work in Begin Again, save maybe gumshoeing his way into our hearts. Ruffalo is simply ‘Dan,’ a music producer who started his own record label from scratch alongside Saul (Mos Def)—Carney doesn’t bother to give any of his characters a last name. As good music gave way to pop and a divorce with his wife took its toll, Dan found the bottle and never took his lips from it. After an outburst in front of some high-profile customers, Saul cans Dan, who tries to take some paintings and employees with him. “This isn’t Jerry McGuire!” Saul says.

Actually, it kind of is. A beleaguered and stressed agent gets fired and starts over with a new philosophy and a new client. This time it’s Greta (Keira Knightley), a British singer-songwriter whose boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) gets caught up in his newfound fame and cheats on her, leaving her alone in New York City. She’s got a meek voice and some strong lyrics, but it takes a drunken Ruffalo to notice her talents. He tells her he’ll use his connections to get her a record deal. Soon they’re recording an entire album on New York streets with a full band provided by Cee Lo Green, Julliard and some random kids Ruffalo finds in an alleyway.

Ruffalo sets the beat. He’s endearing, keenly funny and he’s got one of those smiles that make you smile back. Carney’s given him something to do with his hands as he’s always got some booze tightly grasped. Mark’s drunk is a jolly one, more tipsy than dizzy. He’s the type who’ll wake up in a dumpster and giggle about it then start drinking again. It makes you wonder if he’s even acting. Ruffalo toes the line and he’s having fun with it. He’s the main source of comedy. You can’t help but want to grab a beer with him.  But, his sober side shows a hidden tenderness, a latent passion. Hailee Steinfeld is strong as Ruffalo’s neglected daughter, and their father-daughter relationship makes for good moments.

Knightley’s the kick. She’s got a shy voice but a strong personality: she’s always wearing a confusing amount of fabric, which seems to fit the layers of depth she’s getting at in her role. Ruffalo and Knightley spend a night together in New York, dancing and sharing music on a CD player like old friends. Their relationship is so fun that you hope Carney doesn’t ruin it with romance. Her smart performance and Carney’s shrewd writing keep you guessing. Surprisingly, she’s even able to bring out the best from first-time film actor Adam Levine. In a fantastic break-up scene, Levine plays a song he’s written on the road. Knightley can tell it’s not for her; she slaps him across the face. When he smashes his glass of wine, Knightley’s the one that’s shattering.

Maroon 5’s head man is a strange case as he isn’t really acting so much as pretending. A pop star in real life, it’s difficult to look past Adam and see the ‘Dave.’ Carney gives him enough that he isn’t reaching: he’s calling upon real experience. Though he keeps up with the cast, it’s hard not to wonder why he was chosen for the role. You wouldn’t cast Peyton Manning in a football movie and call him Jim. Carney’s pushing suspension of belief too far.

Overall, it’s hard not to like what Carney’s cooked up here, though at times it gets uppity. There’s a lot of “it’s all about the music man!” thrown around, when the music is nothing you haven’t heard before. Instead of the songs, it’s the quirks—touches of comedy, theg dynamic between Ruffalo and Knightley, genuine performances from the whole cast—that get you tapping your feet right along with it.

With music and New York serving as backdrops, Begin Again is touching, funny and lively enough to merit a taste. Imaginative and different, it challenges what you would normally expect from a rom-com. Carney doesn’t overcook it, and there’s spice enough to defy expectations. I left the theater full. Maybe even a little too full.

B+

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