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Film review: Despite a flashback-heavy setup, ‘Begin Again’ immensely satisfies

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Keira Knightley and Adam Levine swap favorite songs in the mostly winning Begin Again.

Three stars

Begin Again Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld. Directed by John Carney. Rated R. Now playing.

Begin Again’s biggest problem is the way that it keeps beginning again. Writer-director John Carney’s follow-up to his beloved hit Once opens with a British musician, Greta (Keira Knightley), being persuaded to perform one of her original songs at an open-mic night in a New York pub, as an end-of-his-rope A&R man named Dan (Mark Ruffalo) watches appreciatively. The film then flashes back to clumsily establish just how desperate Dan has become, following the course of an increasingly humiliating day—fired from the record label he co-founded, rejected by his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), on the brink of committing suicide—until hearing Greta perform renews his hope.

No sooner does he succeed in sweet-talking her into cutting a demo, however, than the movie embarks on another extended flashback, this one showing the long, slow process of Greta becoming estranged from her boyfriend, Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine), as he becomes a rock superstar. By the time Begin Again is finished setting up who Dave and Greta are, the film is nearly half over.

Once it finally does, however, Carney demonstrates anew his skill at showing two people bonding over their mutual love for music. Knightley and Ruffalo have terrific, spiky chemistry together, performing a unique variation of the will-they-or-won’t-they? scenario as Dan arranges a band for Greta and records an entire album of her material in various open-air New York locations. (Knightley does her own singing and is passable, if not nearly talented enough to attract the attention of a real-life Dan.)

At one point, the two use a splitter to plug two sets of headphones into a single iPod and proceed to walk around the city listening to each other’s playlists, including all the guilty pleasures—a hugely romantic sequence, apart from the fact that Dan is repeating, with Greta’s knowledge, what happened on his first date with his wife (Catherine Keener), from whom he’s currently separated. Likewise, Greta remains hung up on Dave, even as she watches him become an ostentatiously bearded douchebag on TV. Dan’s daughter, who plays guitar, gets into the act as well, and the whole thing resolves in an immensely satisfying way. Shame it takes so damn long to get started.

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