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Emo, the Movie

"Once" mixes music videos and melodrama.

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If you find emotional singer-songwriter pop music cloying and self-indulgent, can you imagine how the movie version is going to make you feel?

On the other hand, if you're a fan of Ryan Adams, Damien Rice and other contemporary bards, you may fall in love with "Once," a wispy melodrama and a celebration of indie music.

Love, the romantic kind, is its muse. It's all over the movie, referenced in more than one language and testified by numerous heartfelt guitar tunes that are the focus of most scenes. If you love love — star-crossed, unrequited, forlorn, candlelit, cut short, starved, cheated, bad-mouthed, left at the train station, forgotten by the wayside, down on its luck, born under a bad sign — you'll love "Once." If you think love, like all other emotions, should not be taken too seriously but viewed with a sense of proportion and maybe even some healthy skepticism, you'll feel unloved by this movie.

It opens much the same way it unfolds, with a short folk song followed by a light comic scene, a full-length acoustic rock number and then some breezy interaction between the leads. These are a Dublin busker (Glen Hansard) and a girl (Markéta Irglova), who meet while the guy is in the middle of a tune. "Did you write that?" she asks when he's finished. Yes, he did, and a whole lot of other songs the audience will be listening to in their entirety, some more than once, despite the promising title.

One of the reasons for this treatment is that Hansard is the founder of a Dublin band called The Frames. The other is that the director, John Carney, is also in the band. Both were evidently fed up with MTV's preference for running marathons of "The Real World." Hence such sequences as the one in which the girl, in need of batteries for her Walkman, goes to the store, then sings a fully accompanied, full-length ballad on her walk back. Instead of music as background support for the action, we get the opposite.

Almost all the actors involved get their turn in the spotlight. When one of them is playing, anyone else in the frame must stand or sit there trying to look as enraptured as possible — even an aging music store owner who obsequiously nods in approval at the busker's warbling.

The girl, we learn, is a classically trained pianist from a former Soviet republic who is now down and out in Ireland. She has a kid, lives with her mother in a dilapidated flat, scrubs floors at a local mansion and, when she finds the time, plays Beethoven beautifully. She's also a saint, an unattached, attractive young woman who rebuffs numerous appeals by the busker for, in her words, "hanky-panky," proving that Hansard and Carney found most of their ideas at an antique bookstore browsing the romance section.

Things loosen up a bit when the two leads decide to make a record. The guy has decided to stop lying around staring at old photos of his ex and move back to London to find her. But first he invites the girl on his journey to the studio, the bank and the street to find a place to record, the money to pay for it and the backing band to make it happen.

The humor in these scenes helps overcome their unnatural tidiness, but Carney cheats a little too much. His movie's grungy, DIY aesthetic looks uncomfortable whenever it's forced to coexist with the more banal necessities of movie plotting. Would these streetwise protagonists believe it's possible to rehearse for a night and over the weekend then lay down an instant classic album that lights the cynical studio engineer's hair on fire? There are Hugh Grant pictures that ask less of their audience's good will.

"Once" will no doubt be flattered by fans and some critics as an innovative cinematic experience; Carney helpfully describes it as a "video album." The songs are quite good for what they are. Hansard is undeniably talented at crafting a memorable tune. This is not a case where the fictional character's art detracts because it too is fictional and therefore slight. "Once" has the opposite problem. Hansard and Carney know the art of the three-minute pop song. It's the hour-and-a-half movie that makes them look self-indulgent. "Once" is terribly, fatally in love with itself. (R) 86 min. S

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