Mark Ruffalo's great gift, besides those scruffy good looks and that prickish, hungover charisma, is capturing the essence of the guy who's spinning toward a crash but trying to angle himself back. His greatest performance, in Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me, one of the best films of the 2000s, is a slow-motion skid-out, a portrait of a man who wishes he could honor the long-term promise of domesticity but can't help but feel crushed by it — especially since he can enjoy the immediate pleasure of mastering the party and the pool table in any bar in America. Unlike most ramblin' men in movies, Ruffalo's Terry Prescott offered no wisdom about what life's really about, and he was stripped of On the Road romanticism. He wasn't searching for anything because he suspected there wasn't a whole lot out there left to find.
More recently, that shifty restlessness has been tapped for The Avengers, where his sleepyheaded Bruce Banner also barely holds it together. Instead of hitting the road when life gets too tough, Banner's going to punch the world — it's the fantasy of the go-nowhere dude he captured so adeptly in Lonergan's film, fight or flight blown up into smash or dash.
Begin Again, like several of Ruffalo's more lackluster pictures, improves if you pretend his character is actually Prescott or Banner a couple years later, that this unsteady hunk might get fed up and either catch or throw a bus out of town. No such luck, unfortunately. Ruffalo stars as one of those movie guys who has it all but loses it in the first 15 minutes so that he can learn the kind of lessons Terry Prescott would laugh at. He gets fired, he's separated from his wife, his daughter won't talk to him, he sleeps on a grubby mattress in the Village and his vintage Jaguar does what vintage Jaguars do: It craps out, giving him the chance to pound the wheel and collapse in an effective (but familiar) static shot.
Ruffalo plays Dan, the founder of a once-pioneering record label now scraping along in the internet age. He's sold his interest and stayed on as an A&R rep, but he can't score a hit. Once his truth-telling boorishness gets him canned, he winds up drunk at a Village open mic night, where he's shaken with a this-is-what-it's-all-about revelation: a plaintive ditty sung by Gretta (Keira Knightley) to a crowd not paying attention. The scene is writer-director John Carney's strongest, or at least his most daring. As Knightley strums into the void, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, Ruffalo's Dan imagines the drums kicking in and a string section sawing away, all of which we actually see, the sticks and bows working themselves without human hands. That his fantasy arrangement is hopelessly overwrought doesn't kill the moment. Here's a desperate man, dreaming big, and Ruffalo and the movie both sell it — for a scene.
From there, despite sturdy performances, Carney's film never again connects to such urgent human feeling. That might not be a surprise, considering this is a movie about a down-on-his-luck millionaire willing to bet that Keira Knightley might be a star. Since he's so obviously right, and since he's not risking much at all, the story collapses into a curiously tension-free New York musical. All that prickly inner conflict Ruffalo is so adept at suggesting? Cheery Begin Again wants none of it, offering instead lots of scenes of two characters we don't believe could ever exist arguing about authenticity in pop music. Dan's old label isn't interested in signing her, and Knightley's character is too principled to sell out or stop cuffing her pants so high they look like culottes, so she and Dan hit on a plan just crazy enough to work in montage: record an album live outside in the city, each song captured in alleys, on rooftops or — seriously? — the platform of the Wall Street subway station.
Dedicating themselves to her art solves all their problems, of course. Knightley plays Gretta, a songwriter from England who came to the States with her suddenly successful boyfriend (Adam Levine), a John Mayer type who sings ghastly falsetto pop and, as you might expect, proves no match for the temptations of fame. Carney tries to deepen the characterization some, but the boyfriend's obviously a cad, which is emblematic of the problem with the movie as a whole: Everything works out exactly the way it seems it will, with only one exception. At times, Begin Again seems to be nudging Dan and Gretta into a romance, and since they're two gorgeous people who make terrible decisions it wouldn't be hard to believe, even if the performers don't spark against each other. (Knightley's lines never seem to come to her; they feel memorized.) As with his superior Once, Carney admirably resists that impulse — Dan's estranged wife is played by Catherine Keener, for God's sake. Who could possibly root for him to find new love?
The musical performances are pleasant, the songs all heartfelt chamber pop of the Aimee Mann or Sam Phillips variety, but without the idiosyncratic genius that might suggest. That goes for the characters Knightley and Ruffalo play, too. They're pretty, and they have the occasional interesting exchange about the soullessness of the music biz, but you'd never mistake them for the real thing, actual people in the actual world. At least you can imagine he sneaks off to smash sometimes.