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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

The writer and director Mike Mills began his career as a graphic designer. His first feature was the 2005 adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel "Thumbsucker." Now, Mills has a new film, a semi-autobiographical comedy called "Beginners." It stars Ewan McGregor as a commercial illustrator and Christopher Plummer as his father who comes out at age 75.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: There's a genre of romantic comedy perfected by Woody Allen in "Annie Hall" that, when done right, can make you feel not just happy but liberated. It's philosophical and free-form, jumping around in time, indulging in flights of fantasy like a first-person comic novel. With "Beginners," Mike Mills puts himself in a league with Allen and Charlie Kaufman; the movie is marvelously inventive, and all those inventions - flashbacks, slide shows, even a telepathic Jack Russell Terrier with subtitled dialogue - pull you deep into the miasma of its tortured hero's mind.

Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a commercial illustrator who, as "Beginners" begins, is cleaning out the house of his late father, Hal - who, like Mills' own father, came out as gay when his wife of more than four decades died. Hal is played in flashbacks woven all through the film by Christopher Plummer - but not the more familiar, sinister Plummer. As Hal, he's light and lithe, joyously uncomplicated, buoyed by his new life among the boys in the open.

He doesn't brood about the past or worry too much that his hunky younger lover, Andy, played by Goran Visjnic, is emotionally unstable and sleeps around. When he receives the news of his terminal cancer, he silently takes it in and says to Oliver sitting beside him, let's not rush out and tell everyone. He wants to keep the party going. Later when Hal is more in feeble and needs to be shaped by his son, he wonders, why Oliver can't find someone too.

(Soundbite of movie, "Beginners")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): (as Hal) Maybe you should take out a personal ad, you know, where you can explain your situation.

Mr. EWAN MCGREGOR (Actor): (as Oliver) My situation?

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) Yeah. I mean you want to be in a relationship and you can't stay in one.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as Oliver) That's your fatherly advice, personal ads?

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) Well, a lot of people use them. I did.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as Oliver) What?

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) If Andy wasn't going to be monogamous why should I be?

EDELSTEIN: McGregor watches Plummer with plainly muddled emotions: love, pride and quiet resentment over the plight of Oliver's late mother, who suffered for reasons that are only now apparent. It's a remarkably centered performance, giving truth to the suggestion I've heard that McGregor is the best film leading man of his generation as long as the budget is below $20 million. He's adorably melancholy in his scenes with the French actress named Anna played By Melanie Laurent, who was Shoshanna in "Inglourious Basterds." Their first encounter at a costume party isn't just meet cute. It's meet omigod the cutest ever.

Anna is flirty and whimsical and very funny. But director Mills wants you to see, little by little, that she has her own family issues and is better at play-acting than being. She tells Oliver that she likes how he doesn't really know her.

Mills' wonderfully tricky syntax allows his alter ego Oliver to ruminate aloud on the forces that have kept him and keep him now from staying with a woman. He works on a series of cartoons depicting the history of sadness since the birth of the world. He narrates for us little slide shows of archetypal photos of the era in which being pegged as gay could cost you everything, and wonders if growing up in the family with secrets made him secretive too.

He ruminates on how genes shape his and every other personality, telling Arthur, the Jack Russell Terrier he inherited from his father that the dog doesn't really want to chase. It's just that Jack Russells were bred for fox hunts, and now they're best known for looking cute in movies.

Arthur might have stolen "Beginners" were it not for a cast that inspires you to empty your bag of superlatives not just Plummer, McGregor and Laurent, but Mary Page Keller in flashbacks as Oliver's seething mom, and Goran Visjnic, who makes Hal's boyfriend both endearing and unnerving.

The movie loses some of its charm as Oliver and Anna grow too close for their comfort. But that's also the point where the title of the movie makes sense. Like his dad coming out at 75, Oliver is a relationship neophyte - a beginner. What a glorious way to end a comedy, just when the characters have to get serious.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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