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TIFF Review: John Carney's 'Can a Song Save Your Life?'

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood September 9, 2013 at 6:00AM

How about we call it “Twice”? Director John Carney so desperately wants to recreate the success of “Once” with his latest pop-musical fairy tale, “Can a Song Save Your Life?,” that it’s almost embarrassing, even if there are a number of good things to say about it. Enough good things, in fact, that the Weinstein Co. already snatched the movie up out of Toronto for a reported $7-odd-million. And you can easily see why: It possesses the kind of shameless sentimentality that sells. And a shallowness that’s ultimately depressing.
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'Begin Again'
'Begin Again'

How about we call it “Twice”? Director John Carney so desperately wants to recreate the success of “Once” with his latest pop-musical fairy tale, “Can a Song Save Your Life?,” that it’s almost embarrassing, even if there are a number of good things to say about it. Enough good things, in fact, that the Weinstein Co. already snatched the movie up out of Toronto for a reported $7-odd-million. And you can easily see why: It possesses the kind of shameless sentimentality that sells. And a shallowness that’s ultimately depressing.

Why depressing? Only because Carney seems capable of so much more, and Mark Ruffalo is one of the more charming actors around, and Keira Knightley is a goddess. Granted, Carney has made a couple of errant choices post-“Once,” the gentle Irish fable that starred Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, and inspired the current, Tony-winning musical (a movie adaptation of which is sure to follow). “The Rafters” (2012) was an atmospheric but incomprehensible horror film; “Zonad” (2009) was about reprobate alcoholics who break out of a rehab facility and masquerade as spacemen. Such films would indeed make a director hungry for a hit. But the undercurrent of emotional calculation in “Can a Song Save Your Life?” is a counterweight to the joy the movie insists on inflicting on us.  

“Can a Song Save Your Life?” isn’t a love story as such. Ruffalo, whom one can tell just loves being in this movie, is Dan, a binge-drinking former star-maker in the New York music world who’s drummed out of his job by his longtime partner (Mos Def) and who, while cultivating an intimate relationship with generic bourbon, stumbles into an open mic night and hears Greta (Knightley) singing one of her winsome songs. In one of the more eccentric moments in the movie, the intoxicated ex-mogul imagines what the song would sound like with various instruments added, instruments lying about the stage which spring to life at the correct point in Dan’s arrangement/hallucination. It’s an interesting illustration of what a producer does, actually, but Carney is after whimsy, not music instruction.

Ruffalo and Knightely are an utterly charming matchup, though not romantically. She is getting over a betrayal by her emerging pop star boyfriend (Adam Levine, who should go back to “Dancing With the Stars”) and Dan has been love-damaged by his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) who lives with their daughter Violet (the suddenly statuesque Hailie Steinfeld, who’s very good). So, mercifully, we are not subjected to Ruffalo and Knightley trying to cook up any age-inappropriate chemistry. If they do go in the lab, though, they might want to manufacture some insulin, because the road to everyone’s happy ending in “Can a Song Save Your Life?” is paved with contrivances and a pop score sweet enough to induce diabetes.

This article is related to: Keira Knightley, Keira Knightley, Toronto, Reviews, Reviews, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Festivals


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.