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'Once' filmmaker returns with lightweight music-biz fantasy 'Begin Again'

Keira Knightley strums for the camera in Begin Again.

Another point of contention: Greta never claims to be a great singer, but Knightley's wispy pipes hardly suggest the glorious potential that perks Dan's golden ears. Her tunes are forgettable folk-pop, and while some of the same songwriters worked on Begin Again, there's nothing here that telegraphs the emotional weight of "Falling Slowly," Once's Oscar winner. Begin Again's broader themes of music as a healing balm (the film's original title, as subtle as an anvil to the skull: Can A Song Save Your Life?) are equally generic, illustrated by a scene that has Dan and Greta soothing their sadness by bopping all over the city with a headphone splitter listening to soul jams.

Begin Again strives, with obvious effort, to Make a Statement about an industry struggling to find its identity amid such troubling inventions as revenue-sapping free downloads, YouTube as a career launching pad, and shows like Levine's own The Voice, which bring instant stardom to artists without the benefit of record-company nurturing. These are worthy issues, but they also make for some heavy-handed dialogue: "We need vision, not gimmicks!"

Fortunately, Begin Again fares better with its explorations of complicated relationships. Nobody does rumpled and wounded better than Ruffalo, and his connections with Keener and Steinfeld feel lived-in and authentic. Knightley has the most obvious character arc, as well as the biggest burden in having to sing — easily the film's primo curiosity factor, aside from the stunt casting of Levine — but she's likable as a hipster scorned, determined to figure out her next move even as her world crumbles around her. (Carney does a good job keeping the breakup storyline from getting too maudlin; witness a musical fuck-you drunk dial to Dave's voice mail, in which an outpouring of emotion is livened up by an impromptu kazoo solo.) It's also a surprisingly relaxed performance, given her predilection for films like 2012's overstuffed Anna Karenina. Bonus: despite those wistful song lyrics, she doesn't end up jumping in front of a train in this one. *


BEGIN AGAIN opens Wed/2 in San Francisco.

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