It takes a village to make a hit single.
Back in 2007, there was a magical musical called Once. Set in Dublin, it was the tale of two emotionally damaged musicians whose lives intersected just enough for them to start healing through a collaborative project. Writer-director John Carney — with a key assist from songs by his stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová — fashioned a tiny-budget miracle that became a word-of-mouth indie hit, leading to an Oscar win for Best Original Song and even a Broadway show. It was the kind of creative lightning anyone is lucky to have strike once.
But that didn't stop Carney from attaching a lightning rod to his head and chasing after storm clouds. For Begin Again he moves the action to New York, where our two protagonists are destined, as in Once, to meet over an emotional performance by a singer-songwriter. A friend (James Corden) has dragged Gretta (Keira Knightley) to the stage at an open mic; in the crowd is Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a once-hot music industry exec. The only thing he's discovered lately is how fast he can get to the bottom of a bottle. Dan hears something special in one of Gretta's original songs. We see what he hears in a cutesy bit where instruments float in the air, playing the arrangement in his head. He becomes determined to record her and get her a distribution deal with his former partner (Mos Def).
First, however, we see in flashback the events that brought Gretta and Dan to that open mic. It's here that Carney starts to make his biggest mistakes. In Once, the heartaches of the Guy and the Girl were sketched in only the broadest strokes, without copious backstory. Begin Again spends what feels like forever showing Gretta's relationship with her musician boyfriend, Dave (Maroon 5's Adam Levine), as he copes with newfound fame and introducing Dan's struggles with his estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and wife (Catherine Keener).
Carney's on more solid footing where the music is concerned. The soundtrack contains a solid collection of folk-pop tunes, mostly by Gregg Alexander, and Carney depicts recording sessions as gleeful celebrations of the creative act. By the time Dan and Gretta spend a breathless night on the town listening to one another's mp3 playlists, Carney has effectively captured music in many manifestations: inspiration, source of healing, connective force.
But Begin Again is also meant to be a love story. Unfortunately, it spends so much time on extraneous nonsense that we're never allowed to focus on the way the protagonists help one another discover crucial truths about where they want to be, and with whom. You're left with a sad sense that Carney has no idea what made Once so wonderful.