When Keira Knightley’s Greta writes songs with her boyfriend, rising rock star Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine), the earnest results at least have simplicity and sincerity in their favour. Imagine her pique then, when he not only shags someone else but squanders their songs’ virtues with big, glossy, clichéd re-recordings…
John Carney’s second romantic musical is a big, glossy, clichéd remix of ideas from his low-key sleeper beauty Once (2006), but the outcome is a happy one: Carney’s sincerity isn’t entirely swamped. Even with A-listers taking the place of Once’s semi-unknowns, his winning way with earthy characters mostly holds firm.
Mark Ruffalo is worth his weight in gold records as Dan, a drunken, broken-down music-biz veteran who discovers the broken-hearted Greta at an open-mic night and urges her to record an album on the hoof. With shabby, galvanising charm, Ruffalo helps draw out Knightley’s easiest, breeziest performance yet and often shepherds Carney’s plot over its bum notes.
But bum notes butt in when Carney shifts focus to Knightley and stunt-casting dullard Levine, a pairing too superficial to engage. Worse still, Carney neglects Dan’s home troubles: Catherine Keener is wasted as Dan’s wife, though she lends her limited screen time effortless indie cred.
So does Hailee Steinfeld as their daughter, especially in her joyous jams with Greta’s ragtag band. The music they make is corny and the decision to record in NYC hotspots howls with contrivance, but the gooey warmth in their improvised gatherings sustains Carney’s human touch. So too with Dan’s pleasingly platonic bond with Greta: no ulterior motives of desire or ambition crop up.
On that basis, Carney’s tale of restorative friendship between idealist underdogs plays like Lost In Translation softened for feelgood usage by Cameron Crowe. If the result is a fairytale without any real bite, the preservation of Carney’s generous spirit on a large canvas is – just – cheering enough to disarm critical defences.
The gentle lightning of Once doesn’t strike twice for Carney, but his latest music movie has charm beneath its slick surface – and Knightley and Ruffalo harmonise just fine.