Once was great; twice, not as nice. Therein lies the crux of the woes facing John Carneys Begin Again, a musical so much like the filmmakers previous effort that it should have been called Once, Again. The scenery has changed, relocating from Dublin to New York, and instead of unknown musicians acting we get accomplished actors singing. But the plot is pretty much the same: Two lost, lonely people connecting through music and finding renewed meaning in their lives. Ho, hum.
While the sameness is a liability, there are rewards if youre willing to look for them. Chiefly, Keira Knightley, utterly believable as a spurned woman whos all but given up on the dream of becoming a successful singer/songwriter. We knew Knightley could act, but the depth and breadth of her singing catches you by complete surprise. Its not perfect, and it would be too slick if it was, but its warm and convincing, especially wrapped around the instantly catchy tunes written by Carney and a handful of collaborators, including Glen Hansard, who won an Oscar for co-writing Falling Slowly, the signature tune from Once.
For the first time in years, theres also rhythm in Knightleys acting, delivering her best work since Pride & Prejudice as Gretta, a smart and sassy Brit whos had it with America, the land of superficiality. Gretta is a purest. No gimmicks; no pretense; no fuss. Just the music. Which is the exact opposite of her two-timing ex, Dave (The Voices Adam Levine basically playing himself), an overnight sensation who deals exclusively in bombast and smarminess.
They were once equal partners, writing and singing songs together. But once Dave struck it big, Gretta was instantly reduced to flunky status, meaning her primary function was fetching Starbucks for Dave and his entourage.
That is until she finally summoned the courage to split and seek shelter in the flea-bag flat inhabited by her schlumpy best friend, Steve (Tony-winner James Corden, excellent as always). But with zero job prospects and even less hope, it might be best to finally call it quits.
In other words, its time for fate and a cheesy movie script to intervene. With less than 24 hours until Gretta is slated to board a plane back to London, HE, drunk and disheveled, staggers into her life. Not just any HE, mind you, but a HE with the sad, sexy eyes of Mark Ruffalo.
But its not his peepers that are about to save her; its his ears and imagination. In the movies most indelible scene, Ruffalos washed-up music exec, Dan, enters a Manhattan dive for the whiskey he craves and gets exactly what he needs in the intoxicating voice emanating from the stage. Its Gretta, of course, performing a farewell tune on her acoustic guitar. And, per usual, everyone is ignoring her.
Not Dan, hes not only hearing her voice; hes mixing it in his head with an assortment of strings and drums, all seen in a neat bit of movie trickery played by what looks like an invisible band of ghosts.
Now if he can just get his former partner, Saul (Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def) to hear it the way he hears it, Dan soon could be on top again, maybe even win back his estranged wife (a wasted Catherine Keener) and wayward daughter (Hailee Steinfeld despicably forced to dress like a hooker).
To that end, Dan comes up with the idea of recording Grettas album live on the streets of New York City, accompanied by a makeshift band assembled through calling in favors and promises of back-end deals.
Like Once, Begin Again soars whenever theres singing and stumbles when making half-hearted stabs at romance. Part of that is because Ruffalo and Knightley dont share enough chemistry to sell the notion of mutual attraction. Its a hindrance, as is Carneys insistence on both jumping back and forth in time and providing multiple perspectives (Rashomon style) of events. Its so schizophrenic, its like listening to a discombobulated speed freak recalling his life story.
But in haphazardly mixing narrative styles, Carney cannot create enough of a diversion to disguise the fact that Begin Again is merely another Once.
The temptation for Carney to repeat himself, especially after Once garnered multiple awards and evolved into a smash Broadway hit, is understandable. But he cant keep doing it if he hopes to survive. I, for one, would love to see him try something without using music as a crutch. To accomplish that, hell need to start over, which for him would mean the exact opposite of Begin Again.

BEGIN AGAIN(R for language.) Cast includes Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld and Adam Levine. Written and directed by John Carney. Grade: B-