Skip to main content

Caustic wit is my religion.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
(2018)

(SPOILERS) There’s probably a version of Can You Ever Forgive Me? – perhaps even one starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant – that’s more lightweight and less ruminative, emphasising the hoodwinking hijinks and hilarity over the alcoholism and despair. Not that Marielle Heller’s is a depressing film – it’s frequently very funny – but it’s undeniably an inward looking one, which may explain why material with in-built potential for reaching a wider audience – a down-on-her luck author turns forger and becomes something of a cause célèbre – failed to make a splash.

It did garner three well deserved Oscar nominations, though, Best Actress for McCarthy, Best Supporting Actor for Grant and Best Adapted Screenplay (Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, from Lee Israel’s autobiographical book of the same name), and if it went home empty handed, Grant certainly made the most of the awards circuit tour without seeming like he was cynically touting for business. He’s in prime REG mode here, boisterous, energetic, full of vim and scabrous wit as Lee’s gregarious gay friend and co-conspirator Jack Hock. Hock’s enormously likeable, itinerant yet somehow getting by as long as he has on his charm and essential eccentric Englishness. Grant hasn’t often been granted roles that make the most of his idiosyncratic skillset – the last was probably Dom Hemingway – but when he’s cast to his strengths, as here, he’s in another league. It isn’t for nothing that the performance has been compared to his star-making turn as Withnail, as there’s a common relish in seeking to shock filtered through an underlying pathos.

This is McCarthy’s movie, though and she effortlessly and unshowily adjusts to the demands of straight drama. One might point to Lee’s acid wit as a crutch that ensures McCarthy doesn’t venture into such potentially treacherous territory unaided, but really, there’s no sense at all of her relying on schtick or familiar quirks and ticks. She fully inhabits Lee, a self-destructive, booze-fuelled loner who does her best to be her own worst enemy. Israel’s never less than a prickly customer, but also strangely sympathetic in her persistent self-sabotage. Part of that is the classic trait of someone who is cleverer and funnier than anyone else, even or especially if they aren’t recognised for it; when she resorts to criminality as a means to dig herself out of a hole of debt and potential destitution, we can only cheer her on, particularly as – even if Jack doesn’t really recognise it, and she’s wont to over-inflate the art of what she’s doing at the expense of the illegality – what she’s doing takes significant creative skill and her victims are offscreen folks with more money than sense (of course, once her subterfuge crashes down around her, it really does crash, but even then, her forgeries were still being taken as bona fide a decade and a half later, at least in first-edition form).

I only recently read how Julianne Moore had originally been cast as Lee, complete with fake nose and fat suit, that Holofcener, then the director, fired her before falling out of the project herself; it eventually reassembled with Heller (whose Diary of a Teenage Girl is also marked out by a very particular wit, albeit with a much more striking colour palette and visual style). Ironically, since he seems to be responsible for every other film she does being a stinker, actor-director and McCarthy’s hubby Ben Falcone (Alan Schmidt in the film) presumably brought it to her attention as he’d already been cast in the Holofcener iteration.

If Heller’s film has a flaw, it’s that you don’t really get a sense of how sustained Lee’s period of ill-gotten success was – the excerpt from her novel at the end, for example, suggests Jack was selling her work for quite a spell, whereas in the movie it barely takes up any time – as it seems to be biding time before her discovery no sooner than it has come to pass. That may be partly because you want to spend more time with this duo and enjoy their dubious behaviour – old enough to know better and behaving disgracefully – more fully. Neither does Can You Ever Forgive Me? really engage with the essence or ethos of the practice of forgery – certainly not in the delightful manner of Orson Welles’ F for Fake – aside from the odd aside about “who authenticates the authenticator” and Lee’s assertion that “I’ll have you know I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”. But that’s understandable, as while the underlying scheme itself is fascinating, this is principally a character study, and an admirably rounded one.

It’s to Heller’s credit that scenes that would have been over played or over cooked by someone with less sure a hand – Lee’s dinner date with a bookseller admirer/budding writer, her contrite court confession – play out affectingly. The same with the final meeting between Lee and Jack, allowing for emotion but not at the expense of mutual abuse. Lee pieces her life back together – she gets to write a book, which wasn’t published until 2008, and a new cat - but Heller has the wisdom to make this measured (and as the court confession suggests, she retained an evident pride in her illicit achievements). In its own low-key, unobtrusive way, this offers a classic morality tale – Lee is punished for her duplicity, Jack for his profligacy – but the twist is that neither is chastened by the behaviour for which they’re brought to account. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of last year’s most satisfying films, and one of its best performed. Hopefully home viewing will find it the wider audience it deserves. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.

Frankenstein (1931)
(SPOILERS) To what extent do Universal’s horror classics deserved to be labelled classics? They’re from the classical Hollywood period, certainly, but they aren’t unassailable titans that can’t be bettered – well unless you were Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan trying to fashion a Dark Universe with zero ingenuity. And except maybe for the sequel to the second feature in their lexicon. Frankenstein is revered for several classic scenes, boasts two mesmerising performances, and looks terrific thanks to Arthur Edeson’s cinematography, but there’s also sizeable streak of stodginess within its seventy minutes.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

I want to see what love looks like when it’s triumphant. I haven’t had a good laugh in a week.

It Happened One Night (1934)
(SPOILERS) In any romantic comedy worth its salt, you need to be rooting for both leads to end up together. That’s why, while each has its individual pleasures – and one is an unchallenged classic in every other department – the triptych of Andie McDowell ‘90s romcoms (Green Card, Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral) fail on that score; she doesn’t elicit any degree of investment (ironically, she’s much better as a knockabout nun doing a dolphin impression in Hudson Hawk). Even Hanks and Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle are merely likeable; you can’t get that caught up if there aren’t any sparks flying (Crystal and Ryan, though). It Happened One Night has sparks in spades, the back and forth between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert ensuring it’s as vital and versatile today as it was 85 years ago.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.