Two recent films, Mike Mills’ Beginners and Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, suffer from variations of the same problem—a certain pandering to the audience’s emotions. Both sag under the weight of their own cheap sentimentality, the former of the “we’re all just awkward people looking to be loved” variety, the second of the “see how sad you become when you privilege success over family?” type. It’s unfortunate, because the good things in each of these films are crowded out either by whimsical platitudes or sobering earnestness.
Beginners, the more egregiously condescending of the two, is a hipster comedy-romance-drama in the 500 Days of Summer vein in which a grieving, commitment-phobic cartoonist (Ewan McGregor) copes with his elderly father’s homosexuality and subsequent death from cancer, and strikes up a tentative relationship with a depressive (as opposed to manic) pixie dream girl (Melanie Laurent). The film is already generating Oscar buzz for the great Christopher Plummer, who is indeed charming and quite moving as the dying father. But the film treats him as more an accessory than a real character; he exists, as do nearly all of the characters in the film, in order to telegraph Profound Truths About Love. The film’s haphazard references to the history of homosexuality feel disingenuous—an attempt to capitalize on the recent trend of successful movies about gay characters by gesturing briefly to the plight of closeted gay men. (Its references to Jewishness are just as brief and confusing; they’re forgotten as quickly as they’re brought up.) But what’s most irritating about Beginners is its suffocating cuteness: its soundtrack of inoffensive vintage jazz, its cheeky New-Wave-lite editing, its montage sequences in which McGregor and Laurent roller-skate down a hotel corridor, etc. We’re even given—God help us—an insufferably adorable Jack Russell terrier whose thoughts are subtitled. This is a film that asks no questions, that inspires no new thoughts, that challenges, excites, or offends no one. It exists to congratulate passive audience members and to flatter their pre-existing views on love (“it’s a mess, but hey, we’re all doing the best we can!”) and family (“everyone’s got their problems!”).
The Trip is more frustrating, because a good percentage of the film is highly entertaining—a prickly, nervously funny back-and-forth routine between competitive colleagues Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they spend a week in Northern England, eating gourmet food and trading brilliant impersonations of Michael Caine and Woody Allen. But then we’re given tedious scenes of Coogan standing alone on gloomy moors, stricken with loneliness, carrying on mopey cell phone conversations to the strains of pensive piano music, and we’re made to think “how sad he is!”--whereas the equally neurotic, passive-aggressive Brydon is apparently redeemed by virtue of his happy home life with wife and baby. See? All you need is love. Why must these films choose to head in the easiest possible directions? Why attempt to reduce complex human experiences to these lowest common denominators? Our films owe us more than the intellectual equivalent of greeting cards.