Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

I should admit upfront that I was hesitant to give this movie a fair chance. I missed Can You Ever Forgive Me? in its initial run because I was unsure that it was anything more than Oscar Bait. An Oscar Season actor’s showcase for a once-goofy-now-serious comedian in a tonally muted biopic will never be the kind of thing I rush out to see. The talent on-hand in this particular case was too substantial to fully ignore, however, as the comedian in question is the consistently compelling Melissa McCarthy and the director behind her Marielle Heller, whose previous feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl might just be one of the best dramas of the decade. I don’t believe my initial misgivings about Can You Ever Forgive Me? were entirely inaccurate. The film’s subdued real-life subject, its predilection for montage & voiceover narration, and its relentless mood-setting jazzy score all feel like they belong to the exact kind of well-behaved, awards-seeking picture that I actively avoid. I also only got a second chance to see it in a proper theater because of those awards; after being nominated for two acting-category Oscars (and a third for Best Screenplay) it returned for a second theatrical run in New Orleans to profit off the buzz. Make no mistake: Can You Ever Forgive Me? carries the exact look, feel, and prestige you’d expect from an Oscar Season biopic featuring a comic performer acting against type. What’s wonderful, then, is how Heller & McCarthy (along with fellow subversives Richard E. Grant & Nicole Holofcener) use that structure to deliver something much more tonally & thematically challenging than it initially appears.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dressed up like a prestige biopic, but only in the way that a mean drunk can temporarily disguise themselves as a functional, friendly human being in short social bursts before their true colors start to show. McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a once-successful literary biographer who turns to a life of petty crime once she finds herself near-homeless, unable to successfully pitch any new projects to her publisher. Her particular talent of getting into the heads (and voices) of her literary biography subjects comes in handy when she begins to forge personal letters in their name to sell to collectors – faking correspondence with important historical artists like Dorothy Parker, Fanny Brice, and Noel Coward for minor sums of cash. The payoffs are relatively small for a grift that lands her under investigation by the FBI, but Israel seemingly has no other means to survive, as she lives precariously without a social safety net. In a lesser film, that sense of isolation & financial doom would be blamed on some social ill or systemic pitfall that failed her. Here, it’s because Lee Israel is an asshole. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is most impressive as a balancing act of admiring & sympathizing with a character while not letting them off the hook for being a drunk & an obstinate dick. Lee Israel and her only partner in crime (a fellow poverty-line drunkard played by Richard E. Grant) live by a strict “Fuck ‘em” policy when dealing with the rest of the world, an attitude that isolates them in ways that are both dangerous to their well-being & difficult for wide-audience sensibilities. It also makes for a much more relatable, satisfying picture than what was sold in its earliest ads.

The secret success of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that it passes itself off as a well-behaved biopic, but it’s not a biopic at all. While the film does follow a somewhat notable historical figure around a long-gone 1990s NYC, it’s less a biography of Israel’s life than it is a dual character study of two very particular, very difficult people. Crude, drunk, queer, mean, proudly unemployable, and living in squalor, Israel and her sole co-conspirator have a hostile relationship with their fellow New Yorkers (and the universe at large). McCarthy plays Israel with aggressive skepticism & a permanent scowl, deathly afraid of showing a single glimpse of emotional vulnerability or sincerity. For his part, Grant goes full Quentin Crisp as her cohort, ruthlessly squeezing every cheap hedonistic thrill out of life as he can, treating his limited time on Earth as a frivolous lark. Even if you don’t see you own personal flaws & hurt reflected in these characters, it’s easy to recognize them as kindred spirits; the shithole world we live in doesn’t deserve any more sympathy or respect than they’re already giving it. Marielle Heller’s greatest achievement in this film is in inhabiting Israel’s voice & POV, the same way the infamous forger inhabited the voices of the literary figures whose graves she robbed. No matter how prickly or destructive Israel can be in the film, we never lose sight of the fact that the world let her down first, that life is a bum deal that doesn’t deserve a single ounce of effort whether or not she’s willing to give it. Whether she’s furiously railing against the fragile egos & unearned confidence of straight white men or enjoying a brief glimmer of peace in an upscale drag bar, we feel her anger, her pain, and her displacement in a world that does not want her. You cannot fake that kind of authenticity in spiritual kinship, even if Heller, McCarthy, and Holofcener are speaking for Israel, even if the vessel that contains her forged voice carries the inauthenticity of an Awards Season melodrama.

-Brandon Ledet

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Great Expectations (2013)

EPSON MFP image

three star

I have a real soft spot in my heart for modern movie adaptations of classic British literature. In fact, I think I’m one of those terrible people who likes watching these movies more than reading the books. Every time I see one on Netflix, I have to either put it on my list or if I have time, consume it right then and there.

Great Expectations is a book that I haven’t read in its full version. As a child, I had the abridged illustrated version (Great Illustrated Classics). I loved it. I think I must have read it four times. It’s interesting to have an illustrated edition of any book and then watch the movie. You have a very clear idea of the characters and the movie version either smashes that idea or surprises you with something better. I think in this case my childhood ideas were a little smashed but maybe I shouldn’t come into BBC productions with great expectations (whomp whomp).

Great Expectations is about Pip, an orphan boy raised by his cruel sister and her docile blacksmith husband, Joe. Pip meets a wild bunch of characters: Magwitch, an escaped convict; Miss Havisham, a crazed depressed shut-in who sits around in an old wedding dress; and Estella, Miss Havisham’s spoilt brat of an adopted daughter. He goes from being a poor boy apprenticed to a blacksmith, to a real gentleman living in London built on the funds from a kind, anonymous benefactor.

It’s with this cast of characters that I have a problem with. Ralph Fiennes feels awkward in his role of Magwitch. It may be because recently the only roles I’ve seen him in have been effeminate dandies, but I think his performance feels very forced. Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham is very hit or miss. She plays it up with her typical kookiness, but instead of being the haunting, old skeleton bride necessary for the role, she feels like something out of a My Chemical Romance music video. And Jeremy Irvine (of Stonewall infamy) I feel was too much of a pouty-lipped pretty boy for an adult Pip. Although I was glad to see Bebe Cave in it as young Biddy. I liked her so much in Tale of Tales it’s good to see other things she’s done.

Not everything’s wrong with this movie. Obviously if you’re watching movies like this for the right reasons, you’re in it for the sets and the costumes. I loved the way they played up the Gothic themes of the novel, Helena Bonham Carter aside. The inside of the Satis House, Miss Havisham’s spooky abode, is delightfully dilapidated. There are ghastly relatives sitting in chairs in the hallways, dust motes flying around, and a banquet table left to rot. The costumes are equally sombre, full of dark, subdued colors. Maybe a little too subtle for my tastes, but still good.

I may have gone into this movie with my preconceived notions of what the story should look like based off a children’s version of the novel I read 20 years ago, but I still think it was an average, yet faithful adaptation. It definitely satisfied the part of me that loves this sort of thing. Sometimes you just need to mindlessly watch the movie adaptations of great British classics you’ll never get around to reading.

-Alli Hobbs