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Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the Melissa McCarthy movie Can you Ever Forgive Me?
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.
A little preamble here: when I was a kid, I was a huge comic-book geek. I may be a jaded cinemagoer today and thus nonplussed by the current wave of superhero movies, but I was a big-time Marvel Zombie from about 1984-90, enough so that I would frequent local comic-book shows to hunt down various back issues. The comics dealers would often sit side-by-side with sports memorabilia folks, and while I was also a baseball fan, the idea of collecting cards or autographs never seemed very appealing? To me, the entertainment value from a signature or card featuring a bunch of numbers on the back (which anyone could find elsewhere) paled mightily when compared with a tale about Spidey's latest exploits. While it was cool to have a comic "collection," it would've been meaningless to me without the stories therein.
This takes me to Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the recent film about writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) and her forgery schemes of the 1990s. When the story opens, Israel is sitting just one step above "destitute" -- unemployed, months behind on her rent, and far removed from the days when her agent would promptly answer her calls. While doing research on 1920s entertainer Fanny Brice at the library, a personal letter from Ms. Brice slips out of a dusty old tome... and Israel soon finds out from her local bookseller that such celebrity correspondence is worth serious coin. What's more, the letters are even more valuable if they include a bit o' personal flair from their authors. So, whom would it harm if Israel tacked on a saucy line or two to embellish the note, right?
The wheels soon start spinning in Lee's head, and before long, "extra lines" evolve into "composing whole missives from scratch." When next we see her, Israel has acquired an assortment of vintage typewriters and is cranking out slews of old letters (on artificially-aged letterhead), which she then cashes in via antiquities dealers all over the Big Apple. The rent gets paid and she's treating her friends (er, scratch that, "friend" -- she doesn't have a large social circle) to steaks, unaware that the Sword of Damocles is hanging over her. And it drops when Israel gets a bit too careless and composes a "letter" from playwright Noël Coward that one of Coward's friends sniffs out as being completely implausible. Once the FBI is on the case, the web of deceit implodes very quickly.
That's the plot in a nutshell... but most viewers were probably aware of how things shook out when they entered the theater? So then, Clarence, how should we judge films "based on a true story" where the story involves high-profile, fairly recent events? The 2015 Oscar-winning Spotlight (about the sex abuse scandals involving Boston priests) suffered from the same problem -- we all knew how the tale would unfold, so that tends to cut down on the dramatic tension.
What's left is a character study about a misanthrope in Israel and her many frustrations with the world. To her credit, McCarthy delivers the goods; her desperation is palpable at the outset, but yet it's hard to feel that much sympathy for someone so sullen. (When her ex-girlfriend drops in near the end of the film for a quick heart-to-heart chat, we're surprised that Israel was ever in a relationship to begin with.) Real-life accomplice Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) is plopped into the film at around the 10-minute mark via a Platonic Meet Cute, and... ugh. Grant picked up an Oscar nomination for his efforts, but to me, his character -- seemingly centered around comic relief via gay stereotypes -- seemed rather stale. And it was only during the last quarter of the movie, as everything is crumbling and Israel realizes the extent of her damage, that his double-entendres come to a halt and the story acquires a bit of gravity.
What did you think of the film and the performances therein? Have you ever ventured into the world of memorabilia? (I couldn't help but think of all the mining of writer David Foster Wallace's notes and manuscripts after his death -- I shudder to think of how much a personal note from him would be worth.) And do you think that Israel received an appropriate punishment at the conclusion of the film, given her misdeeds?
Interestingly enough, Kevin, I was also a comic book collector back in the day. "The day" being the mid-to-late 1980s when only Stan Lee thought the notion of turning comic books characters into big-time movie entertainment was a plausible idea. Just recently, as a matter of fact, my mom, as part of the deepest of deep-cleaning of the family house, insisted that I take possession of my collection so it wastes space in my own place. I actually have a few issues that have some value, but I missed the first appearance of the character Deadpool (a comic that, on the current collectors market, could fund a nice vacation) by one issue...!
Like other kids in our general age group, I was enthralled by the stories, but I also had one eye on preservation - Mylar bags and cardboard backing became standard issue. The theory was this pile of paper, properly kept in Near Mint condition, might one day pay for college. It didn't, but I have no regrets, and I think handling collectibles helped me appreciate the atmosphere of this film. But you're right, the story is pretty straightforward and contemporary. You need interesting people to pull it off. And Melissa McCarthy does just that. I haven't watched a main character this unlikable since Lili Taylor played feminist sociopath Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), another film set in New York City in the kind of circles where being aggressively unpleasant doesn't get you immediately punched in the head.
I felt NO sympathy for the character McCarthy played; She's a lazy straight-up a--hole who would rather cut corners than lower herself to do something she doesn't want to do like work for a living. Her misery and self-loathing are matched only by her sense of entitlement. Somewhere, someone gave her the idea that professional writing was something owed to her, and if she didn't get rewarded, that meant the world was wrong. I though her final punishment was about right, if only because an extended stay in prison would only give her more opportunities to learn crime and write a self-important tome about herself.
As for the person playing the part, I thought McCarthy was fantastic. She is a wonderful actor with a severely uneven resume, as far as quality goes. Leaving aside her star-making supporting role in the TV series Gilmore Girls, she was the best part of the disappointing Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, Tammy, The Boss, and the Ghostbusters reboot, high-profile movies that just weren't very good. On the other hand, I consider her films The Heat and Spy to be two of the funniest movies Hollywood has made in the last 10 years.
McCarthy's character in The Heat is a prototype of what she presents in ...Forgive Me - an intelligent, no-nonsense outsider fueled by a combination of fear and rage. In both movies, it's up to her "buddy" (Sandra Bullock in the former movie, Grant in the latter) to figure out how to navigate the barbs and bile so they can make some kind of connection and get something done. I think you're right, Kevin, that Grant's character is just a bit too stereotypical of a mooching, former-fabulous gay man. But to Grant's credit, he manages to inject a dose of humanity into his actions that invoked a degree of sympathy I simply could not muster for Lee Israel. The scene where he walks Lee home for the first time, feeds her a line about living up the block from her, then turning the other direction when she's out of sight to wander off who knows where was a wonderful outline of his character.
This kind of circles us back to the New York mise en scène. Kevin, do you like watching current movies based there? I recently gave up on a couple of TV series based in NYC (Broad City after one season, the Natasha Lyonne show Russian Doll after one episode) in part because I just couldn't stand the arch, almost cartoonish "New-Yawk" - ness of the characters. Or is that something you even notice? So many TV shows are based in Chicago nowadays - do WE have this problem? Is there a Chicago character stereotype one could pick out on-screen?
Also, if you had to involve yourself in some kind of collectors' scene, what would it be? Art? Cars? Music? Many of our fellow CHIRP Radio volunteers are already experts in the vinyl record markets...!
Will I be excommunicated from CHIRP if I admit that I've never owned a record player or piece of vinyl in my life? (I assume the Donny & Marie Osmond turntable I had at age 5 doesn't count.) I know, I know. Hmm. How else to shatter any remaining indie cred? I've never cared much for David Bowie. Wilco has always left me cold. I'll stop here...
As far as collecting, well, I've been on a mission to de-clutter as much as possible over the last few years! This has meant parting with books and CDs that either I didn't absolutely love or held no sentimental value. Of course, it's mighty cool to have a big fancy library, and last winter I visited the fantastic Rosenbach House in Philadelphia -- essentially a museum for literature. But with the amazing Chicago Public Library system, I hardly even buy books anymore.
After my initial post on ...Forgive Me, I sent you a note about how New York City in the wintertime has to be one of the most depressing locales around -- just a vast, dreary, concrete sprawl. And it ain't like it's that much better in the summertime, as it pales significantly in comparison with our fair town when it comes to green space. But there's certainly the sense that everything is just a bit more hip in the Big Apple? With the people being edgier and/or tougher? There was a reason that the vast majority of Marvel's heroes set up shop there -- we grew up in an era where New York felt one small step away from total anarchy! (I mean, jeez, they made a film about Manhattan being turned into a giant prison, and it didn't seem that far-fetched at the time.)
When it comes to Chicago-based shows, however, I'm out of the loop -- the only one that readily comes to mind for me is the fantastic Boss (with Kelsey Grammar going against type as a tough-as-nails mayor). Do people still connect the city with Al Capone and organized crime, a la The Chicago Way? Or the beer-and-sausage Superfans set of SNL decades ago? There's not really an industry that defines this town, like Wall Street with New York or Hollywood with Los Angeles. Perhaps that's a good thing? John Hughes intended Ferris Bueller's Day Off to be a "love letter" to Chicago; are there other films that, intentionally or otherwise, attempt to define various cities? Certainly with LA, you've got a few (Mulholland Drive, Chinatown, Sunset Boulevard). Baltimore -- The Wire, of course. And is it possible to set a tale in DC without it being related to politics?
You also brought up the topic of unlikable protagonists -- those are certainly not easy hurdles for films to navigate. There have been lots of movies starring unsavory characters, but I don't think we liked Vito and Michael Corleone any less because they were mobsters; if anything, we appreciated them more because they were able to handle problems via ways in which we ordinary peons can't. High-powered criminals on screen often also possess a certain dignity and charm, traits that were very much lacking in McCarthy's Lee Israel. Lee was just... a sad-sack. While there's sad-sack-good (Patton Oswalt's Paul in Big Fan, one of my favorite comedies of the '00s), Lee is sad-sack-bad, a category that I will forever link with Napoleon Dynamite's title character, whom I wanted to pummel from the very first scene.
There is something simultaneously gripping and frightening about the savage criminal-as-protagonist, certainly. How did you feel about Alex from A Clockwork Orange? Or Hannibal Lecter? And did you ever see Bronson, starring Tom Hardy as Britain's most notorious inmate? The film is an experience, and certainly the closest I think cinema has come to depicting a seemingly modern man as a wild animal. Chills.
I think there has been a marked change in how New York City is perceived in film and TV over the last 20 years. For the longest time is was The Big City, a place ruled by big business, the Mafia, and cultural elites. In movies, TV, and documentaries, the city was usually portrayed as having a certain grit and edge, especially during the lean years of the 1970s. (A fun documentary that shows this is NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell.)
Then something happened, and I think that something was NBC’s “Must See TV.” The string of hugely popular sitcoms set in NYC in the late ‘80s to early ‘00s (led by Seinfeld and Friends) went a long way in changing perceptions of NYC as a haven for goofy outsiders, whiny beta-males, and 20-somethings frolicking in an urban playground. The Tough Guy, a New York City character staple for the longest time, became an afterthought or a punchline.
This perception change isn’t something that’s new. On the whole, filmmakers pick and choose which parts of a city to feature. A fascinating doc about this is the 2003 project Los Angeles Plays Itself, which has existed mostly in bootlegs since the producers never got all the rights to the clips they showed.
In that sense, I think the culture has moved on from it’s original perceptions of gangsters and sausage-munching sports fans. It’s interesting that on Wednesdays, NBC has scheduled an entire night dedicated to blue-collar dramas set in Chicago (…Med, …Fire, and …P.D., respectively). It’s almost like Chicago is now generic enough to stand in for The Big City in place of New York, a city that people may not believe as a place where “real” people live anymore…?
[Also, I am not a fan of Napoleon Dynamite either, although I did enjoy Jon Heder’s performance in the comedy Blades of Glory. I’m just glad they realized that particular franchise had a limited shelf life.]
I never did see Bronson, but I did see a movie I suspect might come close, the 1998 French film I Stand Alone. The entire movie is centered around a man who’s a real POS and right on the edge of going way too far with his rage. That character was much scarier in context than Alex or Dr. Lecter, especially since the latter two were presented more "artistically."
I Stand Alone does nothing to make the viewer want to like this man or make him redeemable, something I think is still reserved mainly for male characters in movies. A lot of male actors can make a career out of being disagreeable and violent let still lovable jerks (Jack Nicholson immediately comes to mind). I have trouble thinking of a woman who’s been allowed that luxury.
When Glenn Close plays a thorough jerk in The Devil Wears Prada, it’s understood to be a joke on many levels. When Charlize Theron transforms herself in Monster (a fantastic performance, btw), the audience is still expected to extend empathy for her just a little bit. Even the title of Melissa McCarthy’s film could be read as an entreaty to the audience, a plea for a sliver of understanding toward an awful woman.
It’s rare to find roles for women that allow them to be as irredeemable as some classic male characters. Although, now that I think of it, this may be a key for me understanding Lady Macbeth a bit more…! I may have to set the rewind button on that one.
Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!
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