Writer-director John Carney understands the importance of being earnest. His 2006 breakout, Once, wore its heart on its hand-knit sleeve and left behind a warming glow in your sternum like two fingers of emotional Jameson. Featuring fragile performances and a lovely (and Oscar-winning) songbook by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, it was a splendid slice of counterprogramming, and its success seemed as singular as its name suggested. But that hasn't stopped Carney from trying to capture that magic twice. His latest film, Begin Again, takes the same basic tune two disparate lonely-souls connect through song and adds backing strings: bigger stars, larger cast, fancier production. Keira Knightley, reticent and radiant, plays Gretta, a sometime songstress whose open-mic performance catches the well-trained ear of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a self-destructive record producer on a downswing. In one of the film's few delightfully imaginative scenes, he mentally composes an arrangement around her spare rendition, as scattered instruments come to life and begin playing themselves like an animatronic Disneyland jamboree. The point being, Dan hears in her what no one else does. He tries to sign her on the spot, and the rest of the film centers on their efforts to produce an album as they also strive to pick up the pieces of their derailed lives and place them back on track. Gretta has been left by her rising-rock-star boyfriend (Adam Levine), while Dan, grungy and behind the times, has lost his seat at the record company he founded. He lives in a grimy downtown apartment far from his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and his 14-year-old daughter (Hailee Steinfeld).
Carney's script comes certified 100 percent irony-free, and that kind of sincerity can be pretty gutsy nowadays. The film's original title, Can a Song Save Your Life?, gives you a sense of its utter lack of cynicism. (The answer, by the way, is generally no unless the lyrics are CPR instructions.) The movie's dopey ardency comes off like a man on the street with a sandwich board offering free hugs: You may not be entirely comfortable with its guileless embrace, but it's hard to deny that hugs can be pretty great. Where Carney trips up is in the delivery. Once was a small and well-loved heirloom, its imperfections part of the charm. But Begin Again has been burnished to a shiny dullness.
''You weren't supposed to lose the song in it. It's delicate,'' Gretta tells her ex-beau midway through the film after he remixes one of her ballads into a dance-pop atrocity. Carney too has drowned out the melody with overproduction. The film attempts to be a paean to New York City in the way Once was to Dublin, but its narrative tidiness is antithetical to the Big Apple's beautiful messiness. When Gretta and Dan go on a Manhattan walkabout, each wearing headphones plugged into a single player, their soundtrack (Sinatra's ''Luck Be a Lady'') is as predictable as their destinations (Times Square, East River). If New York is meant to be a scalding cup of post-hangover deli coffee, this is a Starbucks vision of the city. (Indeed, the soundtrack by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals feels exactly like the sort of laid-back acoustic mood music played on perpetual repeat in Starbucks everywhere.) Some songs are catchier than others the schoolbook-margin lyrics are as openhearted as anything else in the film even if, taken together, there's a blandness to them. It's true that the sweet core at the center never fully melts into treacly goop, and Ruffalo and Knightley are touchingly low-key. But when your movie features two coaches from The Voice (CeeLo Green joins Levine in the credits), small charms can be overshadowed. At some point, Carney loses the song in it. B-