It's always interesting to see how a newly successful filmmaker follows up a surprise hit movie. Irish director John Carney made his 2007 film Once with a budget of $150,000, and it went on to earn $20 million worldwide, win an Oscar for Best Original Song and spawn a Broadway show that won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. Most important, Once became the rare movie that savvy music fans adopted and adored, thanks in no small part to the natural presence and memorable songs of Glen Hansard, leader of Ireland's much-admired The Frames. Carney directed the little-seen comedy Zonad in 2009, but Begin Again is intended as the true successor to Once, another music-filled tale about down-on-their luck musicians hoping to catch a break and make sense of their lives. But Carney apparently has misunderstood what gave Once its unique appeal.
In Begin Again, Carney replaces Hansard and musical partner Marketa Irglova with Hollywood stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, both of whom make the most of non-taxing roles. But the music presents a series of intractable problems beginning with the banal presence of Adam Levine (of Maroon 5 and TV's The Voice) and nondescript songs mostly by Gregg Alexander (formerly of pop-rockers The New Radicals). All this might be acceptable if the script didn't obsess over issues of musical authenticity to which the film itself cannot measure up. Begin Again originally screened on the festival circuit with the breathtakingly hokey title Can a Song Save Your Life?. By the time the credits roll, the answer is clear: "Yes, sometimes, but not this one."