Beginners 

Writer-director Mike Mills goes too heavy on the toppings in otherwise personal drama

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Beginners

3 Stars
(R)

Note: This film has been pushed to a July 1 opening

Watching writer-director Mike Mills adorn, and finally suffocate, his sophomore feature film is like watching a child go a little too crazy with the glitter on an art project – eventually, you can't see the art anymore.

Mills' story is a deceptively simple one: Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, an introverted artist who pushes women and, increasingly, his own clients as far away from him as he can. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has just come out as a gay man at the age of 75 and is shortly thereafter diagnosed with cancer. As Oliver attempts to bond with and take care of Hal, we flash forward to the aftermath of Hal's death, which includes a suddenly all-encompassing relationship with a French-American actress played by Mélanie Laurent. As their relationship progresses, we flash back to Hal's final days, which includes an active role in the gay community and a boyfriend (Goran Visnjic) with boundless energy. Meanwhile, Oliver flails at work as he turns an album cover assignment into a grand statement on happiness.

OK, maybe it's not so simple. But it should be, and that's where Mills goes glitter-happy. Oliver's voiceover (deadly for pacing) isn't enough; Mills also injects color cards and sequences of vintage photos and employs three scorers to plink out preciousness. And then the dog gets his own subtitles.

All of this might have been offset by the bravura acting – Plummer and McGregor hit their emotional beats like two welterweight boxers going round for round – if not for Laurent's exhaustingly pixie-like portrayal of Anna, McGregor's new love. I don't blame Laurent, mind you: She's as beautiful as must be humanly possible and French to boot; her Vogue poses and preening come as naturally to her as breathing. But a great director can find unexpected ways to wield her power – she should probably always be in Tarantino's Inglourious hands – and Mills, despite his music-video credentials (he's helmed vids for Moby, Air and Pulp), is not yet that director.

It should be noted that part of the disappointment stems from the knowledge that Mills lived this story. He based it on his own father's golden-years coming out and, like Oliver, worked as the graphic 
designer of album covers for Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Cibo Matto and more, and has released a few books of his photography. This is obviously deeply personal material, which makes one wonder why he felt the need to cloud it with indie confetti. It's the kind of "look at me" indulgence that most directors get out of their system with their debut, and Mills' first feature, Thumbsucker, certainly had plenty of it. He should have grown out of it by now, especially before telling something this close to his heart. The soul is there, but it's drowning in glitter.

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