Thursday, February 21, 2013

If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On

Film: Once
Format: DVD from NetFlix on big ol’ television.

I’ve finally figured out why I really don’t like romantic comedies. I’ve always thought it was because they set up unreal expectations. The romantic gestures that eventually get the girl at the end of the movie are the kind of thing that would get a typical guy arrested and slapped with a restraining order in the real world. There’s also the idea that women in most romantic comedies, no matter how accomplished and successful they may be, are failures simply because they don’t have a man in their life. But I’ve finally figured it out.

The reason I’ve figured it out is because I watched Once, which is not a romantic comedy, but a romance that features a lot of music and some really good performances from actors I’ve never seen before. And here’s the thing—what makes this film work is that I genuinely like these characters. They sell the story, they sell the film. Ultimately, Once has led me to figuring out that the main reason I don’t like romantic comedies is that I genuinely don’t like the characters. They almost always come off as smarmy, stupid, arrogant, spoiled, and unpleasant. Contrast that with this film, where the characters are sweet, natural, and likeable. I also appreciate it when a romance ends on a down note. Sure, I like some that end happy, but I like the sad ones more (Amelie and a few others are notable exceptions).

A busker in Dublin known to us as Guy (Glen Hansard) fixes vacuum cleaners for his father and plays songs out on the street at night and on his days off. One of his songs attracts the attention of an unnamed Czech woman (Marketa Irglova), who learns about his job fixing vacuums and tells him she’ll bring her broken one to him. In due course, we learn a little bit more about the pair of them. We discover that he has had his heart broken by a girl who has since moved to London, and he’s torn about pursuing her. The girl (the one in Dublin) is also a musician, has a young daughter, and she lives with her mother.

There’s an obvious attraction between the two of them, but neither one is willing to act on it because of their past and present commitments. He decides to go to London after all, but wants to record a demo of his work before leaving, and gets her to agree to help him. They secure a bank loan to cover studio time, gather up a few musicians, and put together a few solid tracks. He asks her to come with him despite discovering that she is married, and she declines. And this is all I’m going to say. I’ll leave the last minutes of the film out of this, since it should be discovered on its own.

The film I’m most put in mind of is Before Sunrise. In the review contest I participated in last year, the review of that film was the one that got me booted from the tournament—I got my ass kicked on this one, and because Before Sunrise is not a horror movie, and Oscar nominee, or on The List, I’ve never published the review here. But I still have the original writing, and I’m going to steal from it now, because it applies to Once just as much:

“Ultimately, the uninitiated viewer is warned that there is a significant difference between a romantic comedy and a romance. The first tends more toward the quick feel-good, ridiculous situations, unreal characters, and unrealistic expectations. The second deals with real people struggling with real decisions in a real world of emotions, pressures, and expectations. It’s also why there are more good romances (like this one) than good romantic comedies.”

Our two principle actors here are wonderfully natural on camera, despite both being better known as musicians. They’re likeable and real. It also helps here that the songs are really, really good and really well performed. This is the way I like songs in my musicals—they come up naturally as a part of the story and make sense in the context of the film rather than being something that pulls me out of the story. Here, they flow as naturally as conversation and become an environment for the film to exist in. Seriously, some of these songs are fantastic.

I have to say I didn’t know what to expect with this film, but I certainly didn’t expect this sort of sweetness or to find it so affecting. This is a film that I find it difficult to see how someone might dislike. I can see people not liking it as much as I did or being as taken with these two marvelous characters as I was, but disliking this film? I don’t know how someone could.

If you haven’t seen Once, make room for it. It’s short, and it’s worth your time. If you fell for Before Sunrise or got teary at the end of Brief Encounter, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t be enamored of this film.

Why to watch Once: A beautiful story beautifully told.

Why not to watch: Heartbreak.


  1. So much heartbreak. I was depressed for so long after watching this.
    Romcoms are like in my blood. I can't not love them if they are well made. But I do appreciate the more realistic takes as well.

  2. Love this movie. I guess I was more taken by it because it came out of nowhere and surprised me. "I have to say I didn’t know what to expect with this film, but I certainly didn’t expect this sort of sweetness or to find it so affecting." Yup. Me Neither.

  3. I always maintain that film romances that end poorly - not with a death, per se, but with a separation - are so much more realistic than movies that end with a happily ever after. I like them a lot more too. And I enjoyed this one as well. But more than the romance in Once, I like the focus on creating art. It's so earnest in that regard - these are people who MUST make music, and when you put the two of them together, magic happens.

  4. I didn't actually care for the movie when I saw it about 5 or so years ago. But I know I'm in the minority, and I probably need to see it again. However, I *love* "Falling Slowly." Such an amazing song.

  5. Once is such a great movie. I've watched it a bunch of times and loved it each time. It introduced me to Glen Hansard when I saw it in the theaters, and I've become a huge fan of his work with Marketa and with the Frames. The music is so perfect for the movie, and it's interesting since a lot of it was created previously. I'm glad you checked it out. It's a film that a lot of people love, but I still think it isn't given the credit as being as strong a movie as it is. The scene in the music shop where they pull together Falling Slowly is just pitch-perfect and wouldn't feel the same way with actors. Because they're musicians, they sell the creative process and really make us feel the bond that's quickly forming.

  6. I think the strongest thing about this film is that (as Dan just commented) we're dealing with musicians. The process that they go through feels real. I was a musician (sorta) years ago, and there is a unique joint creative process when putting together a piece of music with a collaborator that this film shows beautifully.

    Nick, maybe you should try it again.

  7. fyi - Glen Hansard was one of the band members in the film The Commitments when he was a lot younger. If you haven't seen it, you should.

    I agree with you that these are very likable characters and that their time together is realistic - up to a point. I loved the movie for more than an hour. I absolutely hated the ending of this film and not just because it's a downer. I hated it for exactly the reason you state that you don't like many romantic comedies - it's extremely unrealistic.

    Two single people who have a lot in common meet, get along well, create well together, and make a real connection. In the real world these people would continue to spend time together. Only in the unreal world of movies will they try to manufacture a completely out of place ending just to make it a downer.


    He leaves to pursue a woman who was abusing him emotionally, and she gets back together with a man who it was strongly hinted was abusing her physically. (You don't move all the way across a continent, to a country where you barely speak the language, where you have no job lined up, and bring your remaining family with you, unless you have very strong reasons to get away from the husband you leave behind.)

    I consider it extremely unrealistic that not just one, but both of these people would say "nice meeting you, now I'm going to go back to the horrible relationship that I was in before." I can see one or both being hesitant precisely because they just got out of crappy relationships. I'd have bought one or both of them deciding to move on, but I can't buy the reason they don't stay together is both going back to their bad relationships.

    1. I actually like the ending of this for the opposite reason--I think it's more realistic.


      Guy leaves to pursue the woman he knows, not the current infatuation, who comes with baggage, including a marriage. The girl stays where she is rather than relocate to another country again. And to your point, he asks her to come with him, and she backs out and becomes unavailable to him, so really, only she walks away from the relationship.

      And people are messy. We live messy lives and leave a lot of possible connections unfinished and incomplete. I buy it totally.

    2. "I buy it totally."

      Wow, I'm speechless. We're going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

    3. Fair enough. How boring would it be if we agreed on everything?

  8. I love the hell out of this film. In fact, the only time in memory where I really cared/was excited about an Oscar nomination was when they were up for Best Song.

    1. And they earned that Oscar. It's a great freakin' song!