Oh, Andy: Poignant Messages Trampled by a Terrible Performance in BEGINNERS
26 February 2012 (Happy Oscar Sunday!)
In Mike Mill’s previous film, Thumbsucker (2005), a primary focus is on adolescent consciousness. That is, the film is a modern-day coming of age story chronicling the teenage protagonist’s journey as his awareness of life, family, love, and himself become stronger and clearer. Attempting to explore similar topics, Mill’s latest film, Beginners, explores emotional development and growth, but thanks to one poor performance, amid a film of exceptional performances, misses its mark.
Beginners picks up with Oliver (Ewan McGregor) right after his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) dies from cancer. Hal’s death is the crux of the film, as Beginners, much like a pendulum, swings back into the past and forward into the future while always touching on or echoing this central moment in time when Hal passes. In the past, Hal reveals to Oliver, four years before his death, that he is gay. Upon this confession, Hal completely changes his life, starting with his wardrobe, and begins dating a much younger man (both physically and mentally), Andy. Oliver observes his father’s new life with a rather equaled mix of confusion and admiration. Later, when Hal gets diagnosed with cancer, Oliver’s life changes again, as he becomes care-giver to his dying parent. As the pendulum figuratively swings into the future (post Hal’s death), Oliver meets Anna, a French actress. Anna has her own father issues, stemming from her father’s deep-rooted depression. Oliver and Anna begin an unconventional romance that, after some emotional highs and lows, evolves into a seemingly strong relationship by the film’s conclusion.
One of the things this film juxtaposes is the relationship between Hal and Andy with the relationship between Oliver and Anna. In many ways, Oliver curiously observed the relationship between his father and Andy and learned from it. Yes, Hal and Andy’s relationship seemed strange to Oliver at first because he had only known his father as a heterosexual man, but in a seemingly short time the gendered aspect of Hal and Andy’s relationship fell by the wayside in Oliver’s eyes and what he began to see was the joy Hal and Andy brought into each other’s lives; a relationship built on love, free of judgment or expectations. This relationship was very different from the relationship Oliver witnessed between Hal and his mother. Retrospectively, Hal was a distant husband to his wife, and subsequently a distant father to his son, because he was uncomfortable putting on a façade of heterosexuality day after day; however, Oliver grew up unaware of his father’s capacity for a loving relationship. Seeing Hal with Andy was like seeing his father for the first time, and through that sight Oliver learned something about honesty, change, life, and, perhaps most importantly, love.
After seeing his father with Andy, Oliver is a changed man, and when he meets Anna he embarks on, perhaps, his first authentic and honest relationship. Because Oliver is still a “beginner,” much like his father was with Andy, Oliver’s relationship with Anna is far from perfect, but what ultimately saves it from peril is Oliver’s diligence in maintaining honesty and perseverance for love, even when things become difficult. As the film swings back and forth between Hal and Andy’s relationship and Oliver and Anna’s relationship, the juxtaposition highlights just how much Oliver learned from his father, and how similar, in certain ways, the two relationships are. It is interesting and incredibly poignant that the father Oliver never believed had the power to love is actually the one person, arguably, who taught him the most about love.
With all that said, Beginners is a flawed film, and clearly it is not the message, plotline, or even structure of Beginners that is the problem; it is the performances. Christopher Plummer, as Hal, did an outstanding job. For decades now he has refined his craft and without question added warmth, humor, and a bit of tragedy to his portrayal of a man who, upon waiting nearly his entire life to embrace the person he was, had only a fleeting moment to evolve into his true self before being struck down by cancer. Plummer’s performance is nuanced, genuine, and heart-wrenching (making it too difficult for the Academy to pass over this evening). Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent’s performances are also strong, in an understated and simple way. As actors, both McGregor and Laurent were challenged with characters that must convey a great deal of thought and emotions to the audience without words and, often, minimal physicality. Yet, both actors proved not to be the “beginners” they play on the screen and succeeded with minimalist approaches to the complexities of their character’s lives.
Unlike Plummer, McGregor, and Laurent’s performances, Goran Visnjic’s portrayal of Andy is exceedingly awkward, uncomfortable, and unsuccessful in Beginners. Andy is a supporting character, thus Visnjic’s screen-time in the film is relatively minimal; however, his presence is such a distraction and, often times, such a mockery of the strong performances around him that he throws off the entire film. Visnjic’s Andy is a simple-minded child, one who lacks responsibility, self-awareness, or common sense. In the film, Andy, in his backpack, uncombed or cut hair, and sweatpants, literally jumps and dances around the shots, oblivious of any depth or significance around him and calling his stability into question. Andy is a completely flat character amid round characters, in large part because Visnjic’s performance lacks good communication and is consistently overdone.
Early on in the film, Andy comes to visit Hal in the hospital and, during the visit, a nurse comes in to check Hal’s blood pressure. Andy moves aside as the nurse begins on Hal’s arm. Andy introduces himself to the nurse and rather awkwardly tacks on that he is Hal’s boyfriend, even though the nurse was quite busy with what she was doing and not at Hall interested in what Andy was saying. Andy then stands behind the nurse and angrily tells her, “I have as much right to be here as anyone else.” Andy’s discontented announcement to the nurse is strange because the nurse never questioned why Andy was there or suggests that he needed to leave; therefore, Andy was being unnecessarily defensive.
While this line suggests Andy’s struggle with his sexuality, which is also alluded to in other scenes, Visnjic’s delivery is off. The tone in which the line is spoken calls attention to Andy’s intentions as Hal’s boyfriend. Why does Andy need the nurse to know he is Hal’s boyfriend? And why is Andy concerned he will be removed from the room? Is Andy not a trustworthy person? Are his interests in Hal disingenuous? These are Hall questions reeling in an audience’s mind after Visnjic delivers his line. Ultimately, none of these questions are worth investigating because Andy’s intentions with Hal end up being true. Yet, Visnjic’s performance is troublesome, as this is only one example of how his unskilled performance misleads the audience into thinking the film will take a particular narrative turn, thus throwing off the film.
Even in his final scene of the film, when Oliver stops by Andy’s home to pick up Arthur, Hal’s dog who Andy had been watching, Andy confronts Oliver about not visiting him since Hal’s death. Andy once again assumes Oliver’s distance is a result of sexuality, proving once more how anxious and confused Andy is about his sexuality. This is intended to be a gripping and emotionally-driven scene for Andy; yet, Visnjic’s performance continues to be overdramatized. As Oliver assures Andy that he does not think poorly of him for his sexual orientation and confesses that his distance is because it was too painful to see Andy with Hal gone, Andy stares rather vacantly. Before leaving, Oliver returns to Andy’s door and hugs him goodbye; Andy breaks down in tears during the embrace. Even in this physical exchange, Visnjic continues miss the mark by overdramatizing the scene to the point where it lacks believability and relatability. In fact, in a film that clearly values subtly, this final embrace is so overdone it is uncomfortable; once again the character’s instability is highlighted, making it difficult for the audience to process and accept Andy.
Ultimately, there are so many wonderful, poignant moments in Beginners, and the three lead actors Hall deliver strong performances; yet, if Beginners was a room, Visnjic’s Andy would be the elephant in it. Particularly when juxtaposed with Plummer, Visnjic’s performance taints the film. Beginners tiptoes back and forth between sadness and joy; the film is emotionally delicate. Visnjic’s Andy, as the elephant in the film, is not delicate and tramples Hall over Beginners, doing irreconcilable damage to Mill’s film.