Tracing a movie's long-form flaws to music-video tendencies might seem the bluntest of moves, but it fits Mike Mills's sweet but stalled-out new feature. Mills previously directed Thumbsucker, one of the more unbearable suburban-malaise indie-gems, showcasing his fondness for fresh-and-clean visuals and equally tidy factoidal observation. Beginners twins the autobiographically based story of a graphic designer (Ewan McGregor) in a deep funk whose cancer-stricken father (Christopher Plummer) came out after decades of marriage; following his newly vibrant dad's death, he meets-cute an actress (Mélanie Laurent) in town for a month. All this doesn't happen at once: Mills and editor Olivier Bugge Coutte (Reprise) deftly shuffle together present and past (all the way back to faded childhood with nutty mom) and sidestep the build-ups and releases of a linear path. Last-chance sexual liberation therefore becomes the backdrop for a younger man's early-onset crises, and the hopscotch helps preserve the slow surprise with which insights about those close to you can arrive (aided by McGregor's faintly concussed vulnerability).
But the flip side to the temporal scheme is that it becomes a crutch (not to mention flirting with using gay romance as mere foil). Mills can stage glancing, often wry moments of tenderness between father and son, boy and girl, but without moving beyond the melancholy of the ephemeral, it reflects the inertia of a director still used to embodying the moment/mood/hook of a pop song for just long enough. (Also scattered throughout are samples of Mills's own drawings, and cutaway this-is-XYZ montages that make facile generational generalizations.) It's not as objectionable as Thumbsucker (not with Plummer, and especially Laurent, lovely and natural in a role that could have been Zooey Deschaneled), but it's a film that feels frustratingly stuck in gear.