Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Director: Marielle Heller

Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty


It’s no easy feat to make a film about ageing, loneliness and self-loathing as funny and enjoyable as this but damned if Marielle Heller didn’t pull it off. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a film that’s never short on laughs, especially in the hilariously bitter ways that Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) treats the world around her. It’s only when the film hits you with a moment of such tragic melancholy that you remember it’s not actually a comedy. Most of the time in films loneliness is the image of a sole figure in an open, empty space gazing into the distance while some gloomy music plays. The image of loneliness presented here is altogether more despondent; it’s like a parasite that’s latched onto you and burrowed itself so deeply that you’ve convinced yourself it’s an actual part of your physical body. It’s a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy whereby a miserably lonely figure such as this film’s depiction of Israel won’t make any meaningful effort to change their lives because they’ve convinced themselves that the loneliness is simply who they are. That the film is able to make that dejected feeling felt as viscerally as it is while still scoring laughs and leaving you feeling like you’ve just watched a feel-good movie is a testament to how superbly it balances itself on that delicately fine line between comedy and drama.

Based on the real Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? recounts her short-lived career as a literary forger. Once a bestselling author of biographies of such cultural icons as Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder, we first meet Lee in 1991 when she hasn’t had a successful book in years. She has taken a proofreading job for which she is vastly overqualified (to the point that she can (and often will) do it drunk) just to pay the bills and has had to resort to impersonating Nora Ephron on the phone just so that her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) will take her calls. Her latest project about vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice is failing to gain any traction with the publishers she used to work with and it is all too apparent that whatever pull her name had back in her more prolific days has long since dissipated. Her bitter and belligerent conduct has resulted in the burning of whatever bridges she once had to the publishing world and the hapless author has only grown more resentful over time. The depths to which Lee has fallen is made readily apparent when she is compelled to infiltrate the kind of fancy party she has always hated with the kinds of literary bigwigs she has always despised (including Tom Clancy) just to get a straight answer from someone. Thus, as likeable a protagonist as she is, it’s no great surprise to see that Lee lives in a run-down apartment alone with her cat.

While carrying out research for the book that nobody wants, Lee happens upon a small bunch of letters written by Brice. She swipes one of the notes to have it valued at her local bookshop and learns that the writings could earn her some pocket money but not much more. That is until she adds a saucy P.S. to one of the notes with her typewriter and finds that collectors are willing to pay far more for its witty, scandalous content. Realising that she may have tapped into something potentially huge, Lee proceeds to compose forgeries in the likeness of such icons as Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker. Her new venture becomes so lucrative and successful that she enlists the drunken, out-of-work actor Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to peddle the texts to several different bookshops and collectors in order to avoid rousing any suspicion. What ends up surprising Lee the most about this whole scam, more than its profitability, is how good she is at capturing the voices of some of the greatest wits and minds of the 20th century and how ravenously hungry people are for something that she herself has written after so many years of obscurity and irrelevancy. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she announces with pride.

This film finally gives McCarthy a chance to flex her dramatic acting muscles and the result is the performance of her career thus far. Her comedy instincts might have tempted her to overplay the character by exaggerating her aggressiveness or hamming up the drunkenness, but that would have been a mistake. Instead her focus is on the human being behind the cursing and booze, one who feels inconsolably estranged and abandoned by the world. She has alienated all those who once loved and respected her and has been left behind by her community and peers due to this fundamental inability to connect with others and adapt to change. One of the more poignant moments in the film is when the romantic bond Lee as formed with local bookshop owner Anna (Dolly Wells) comes to a head as the self-destructive author, convinced of her worthlessness, is ultimately unable to accept the affection that she so desperately craves. This is the kind of role that could easily have been a typical loser-turned-criminal but the depth McCarthy brings instead allows the audience to appreciate Lee as a profoundly broken human being, one consumed and trapped by the loneliness that drives her to act out in such harmful ways. That we empathise with this antagonistic fraudster and find her as funny and sympathetic as we do is as much due to McCarthy’s talents as it is Holofcener and Whitty’s writing.

One of the great pleasures of the film is watching Lee interact with Jack, the only person she knows more wretched than herself and thus the only one willing to put up with her. The casting of Grant invites us to view the character as an older Withnail, still addicted to booze and cigarettes and still putting on an elaborate performance as the character of himself, but there’s a little more going on here. He is homeless and HIV positive and, like Lee, he has been similarly exiled by the New York literary scene. In addition to this Jack is a gay man who, like many other gay men in 1991, feels like has had been abandoned by the world at large and left behind to die. It is a begrudging friendship that they form and seldom do they have anything nice to say about one another but over time it becomes clear to them both that the reason they keep meeting in the same bar at the same time is because neither has anywhere else to go or anybody else who will drink with them. That Jack is so full of glee and bravado (a mask for his anxieties of course) while Lee is grumpy and vicious allows for same great contrast between the two which make their back-and-forths amongst the most delightfully funny moments. Like many things in this film it is both sweet and sad to watch these two nasty characters realise, even after all the insults they trade, all the harms they inflict and all the trouble the con gets them into, not only how much they actually like each other but also how desperately they need each other.

What impresses the most about Can You Ever Forgive Me? is how seamlessly it captures its comically dramatic (or dramatically comical) tone. This is a film that could have easily been either too miserable to be enjoyable or too humorous to be taken seriously. Instead Heller manages to make it land in that perfect middle ground where The Apartment, Harold and Maude and Withnail & I live, all of them films that will make you laugh until you realise how tragic the characters are but then still somehow keep you laughing anyway. The premise about how Lee fools the world with her fabricated letters might lead you to believe that her story will work out something like The Producers, but this film is not a comedy (or at least it’s not that kind of comedy). Some of the circumstances are amusing and Lee is herself a funny character, but when the whole plot inevitably unravels and the truth comes out, it’s not a pay off, it’s a disaster. At the same time, however, it comes with a silver lining, a small but meaningful victory for Lee that nobody can take away. The film ends on a humble but touching note while still maintaining its sense of humour and every second that came before was a pleasure to watch.

★★★★★

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The Happytime Murders

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks

Director: Brian Henson

Writer: Todd Berger


There are some moments in your life when you have to take a moment to stop, take a step back, and think introspectively about the choices that led you to where you are. It could be one of matured recognition where you’ve realised that you’re not as young as you used to be and that you’ve either changed completely or haven’t changed at all. It could be a moment of sober clarity in which you’ve suddenly found yourself in a bad situation like financial insolvency or a toxic relationship and are not quite sure how you got there or how you’re going to get out. It could also be the kind of moment where you wake up on the street on a cold winter morning covered in bruises and your own vomit for the umpteenth time and are starting to finally understand that you have a serious problem. I had such an experience as I was watching The Happytime Murders; I even remember the exact moment it happened. It was a Muppet sex scene where a puppet man ejaculated silly string around the entire room for what felt like eons while a puppet woman screamed in nymphomanic ecstasy. That was the instance where I had to take a deep look at my own life and question the choices that led me to the cinema that day.

How foolish and naïve I must have been when I first heard about the film and thought that a gritty, raunchy noir-comedy about Muppets (directed, no less, by Brian Henson, director of The Muppet Christmas Carol) had promise. A proposed marriage between the creative ingenuity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the uproarious shock value of Team America: World Police, this movie has absolutely none of the satirical wit that made both of those movies so much greater than their gimmicks. Instead The Happytime Murders feels more like if Sesame Street hired the obnoxious, self-proclaimed ‘class clown’ from your primary school to pen a remake of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown using humour that Family Guy would describe as juvenile. Whatever points or insights the movie might have made with its depiction of an alternate Los Angeles where humans and puppets struggle to co-exist are quickly brushed aside in order to make room for puppet porn, sugar snorting and whatever the Muppet equivalent of blood and gore is (fluff and felt?). It’s one thing for a film to neglect exploring its own allegory in any kind of interesting or worthwhile way because it’s so much more focused on being one-dimensionally crude and naughty. What really makes The Happytime Murders so completely insufferable is how agonisingly unfunny it is.

The story mainly follows private eye Phil Philips, a De-Niro-inspired puppet who goes about his day with the kind of world-weariness and cynicism we except from this type of character. He used to be a cop way back when and was the first puppet to ever join the force. You see, puppets have historically been considered second-class citizens in this world and there were many who saw Phil’s career as a progressive step forward for his people at a time when puppets were finally starting to make inroads to society. Another shining example of progress was the popular TV show The Happytime Gang, the first show on any major network to feature a predominantly puppet cast (including Phil’s brother Larry). But then things went wrong. While out on the job Phil failed to shoot a fluffy criminal while a human police officer was in danger, convincing the world that puppets were incapable of policing their own kind. The disgraced Phil was sacked and now he spends his melancholic days tailing adulterous husbands and two-bit crooks. That is until somebody starts targeting and murdering the former cast of The Happytime Gang. That’s when Phil gets roped into a tale of death, deception, and demonstrably desperate and dreadful drollery that could not have ended soon enough.

Things soon escalate as the LAPD catches wind of the killing spree and they pair Phil up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Edwards, we learn, is the cop who was endangered by Phil’s inability to shoot a puppet criminal all those years ago and the foul-mouthed, hard-boiled police officer has not forgiven him. They reluctantly proceed with the investigation together and are led into the slums and back alleys of LA where R-rated puppet hijinks ensue. The movie operates under the notion that the mere subversion of the childhood tradition whereby we have these colourful animated characters engaging in activities we would normally associate with more mature genres will be enough to score the laughs they’re after. We therefore get treated to puppets swearing, puppets being mutilated or blown to bits, and puppets having sex; any deed that Kermit and his friends would never be allowed to perform on network television, it’s all enacted here and not a single gag scored as much as a titter out of me. It’s not that the humour is obscene or outrageous because I’ve laughed at plenty of outrageously obscene films before. It’s that the humour is so stupidly simple and groan-inducingly lame.

One thing that both Roger Rabbit and Team America did very well was building their humour around their stories and themes and using them to serve the larger points being made by their allegories. The Happytime Murders never gets that far because all of its humour amounts to puppets saying dirty things and performing dirty deeds. A puppet femme fatale introduces herself as a “sexual I’ma” as in “I’ma see it, I’ma fuck it”. Later there is an homage to Basic Instinct complete with puppet pubes. There’s even a scene where Phil wanders into the back room of a porno store to find a cow having eight of hear teats pleasured by an octopus. Each of these is a one-dimensional joke that serves no motivational or thematic purpose; they exist solely for the sake of making the movie as vulgar and graphic as possible. While Roger Rabbit had its share of throwaway gags and one-liners, it had just as many that were motivated in organic ways by theme and emotion, including and especially the palpable tension between the human characters and the Toons, and used them in smart and creative ways to add layers to the film, to draw you further into the world they had created and to provide the viewer with insights as well as laughs that served the movie’s overall allegory. The Happytime Murders never even attempts to dig deeper beneath the surface level tension that exists between humans and puppets, opting instead to try and distract us with tasteless joke after tasteless joke (oftentimes either sexist or homophobic) that serve no purpose other than to be tasteless. Even if the jokes were funny (which they aren’t), this movie still wouldn’t offer a fraction of the fulfilment one can get from the movies it’s trying to imitate.

What makes the movie feel more disappointing than merely disgusting and unpleasant is that the craft behind the scenes reveals that some genuine talent and creativity went into its making. In the film’s end-credits we are treated to some clips of the puppeteers at work, a sequence that is far more compelling and even humourous than anything that ended up in the finished product. The work that went into creating a world that these puppets could inhabit, achieving their most outlandish effects, and getting the puppets to interact with their human counterparts; these are all labours that deserve to be applied to a more worthy film. The same goes for the talented human actors whose performances are let down by the sheer absence of comedic material. McCarthy and her Bridesmaids co-star Maya Rudolph, playing Phil’s devoted secretary Bubbles, manage to salvage some semblance of comedy in one of their scenes together by simply interacting with one another, but that’s as close as the movie ever gets to being genuinely amusing. That Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale were unable to do anything of note in the whole film should tell you how little they had to work with between them.

The film’s ultimate failing is that, despite how ‘edgy’ and ‘mature’ its content may seem, it is a fundamentally unimaginative and bland film. Because this movie aspires to be nothing more than a simplistic, one-note parody that builds the entirety of its humour around coarse language and gross imagery for their own fruitless sake, the movie is inherently self-defeating in its own banality. When compared to other films of greater ambition and depth that are infinitely better, funnier and more rewarding for their thought and complexity, the film is utterly astounding in its derivativeness. This film offers absolutely nothing even slightly new or original to the viewer nor does it have any contribution of worth to make that hasn’t already been made by the classics it so poorly copies except maybe as a barometer against which to measure their ingenuity. I don’t know exactly how many poor decisions and fundamental errors had to happen in order for me to end up in that cinema where I lost 90 minutes of my life to puppet BDSM and silly string ejaculation, but it was definitely one of the lowest points I have ever experienced as a moviegoer.

Ghostbusters

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia, Charles Dance, Michael K. Williams, Matt Walsh, Chris Hemsworth

Director: Paul Feig

Writers: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig


Before delving into this film I suppose I ought to address the absurd controversy it has provoked. There seem to be two separate camps of thought on the Internet that have made the most noise on this issue. One regards the original Ghostbusters movie as some kind of sacred holy text that must never ever ever be violated by any kind of a remake or revival. The other is a fanatically extreme form of feminism that believes anyone who could possibly dislike a movie starring four women for any reason must be a misogynist. Both sides are as ridiculous as they are irrational and the uproar they created is one worthy of a South Park episode. Anyway, my basic attitude leading up to the movie was this: I love the original Ghostbusters movie but was open to the prospect of a female-led reboot. I like the director and the actresses they chose but didn’t like the trailer they released. However good movies get bad trailers all the time (and vice-versa) so I went in hopeful that the movie might still end up being good. In the end I thought it was okay.

Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a physics professor at Columbia University, is being considered for tenure when she discovers that a book she co-authored about the paranormal has been republished. Fearing for her reputation she contacts her collaborator Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) with whom she hasn’t spoken in years. Abby agrees to take the book out of circulation if Erin agrees to help her and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), an eccentric engineer, investigate a claim of paranormal activity. They head over to a museum where they discover an actual ghost, confirming everything they had theorised years ago. They decide to follow through with this discovery and open a business on the upper-floor of a Chinese restaurant for the study and capture of ghosts. Joining them is Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), the subway worker who gives the team their first lead, and Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), their attractive but dim-witted receptionist. Together they face a great, otherworldly threat that only the Ghostbusters can stop.

As ludicrous as the controversy is, it unfortunately left an impact on this film. There was so much pressure for this movie to match up to the first Ghostbusters that it ended up trying to appease the fans with awkward call-backs and forced cameos. It’s a shame because whenever the movie actually did its own thing, it worked pretty well. The dynamic between the four leading ladies worked for the most part and could have been taken even further. The action is a lot more creative and inventive than in the original and is often fun to watch. The visuals, while hardly groundbreaking, are decent and match the style of the original while still looking different enough to give the movie its own tone. Not everything new works well (the villain is bland and forgettable) nor is everything old stale (Slimer’s cameo rocks) but ultimately the movie’s biggest weakness is that it is too afraid to be its own movie.

The movie’s second biggest weakness is the inconsistency in its humour. For every joke in this movie that works, there is one that does not. I hope that whoever was in charge of the trailer got sacked because, in a movie that has some very funny jokes and moments, they were somehow able to cherry pick the absolute worst and most cringeworthy of the bunch. The inconsistency is present throughout the film and is often frustrating. Having Holtzmann snack on a can of pringles during their first ghost sighting is quite funny. Having that ghost puke on Erin is not. The movie is full of these moments where it temporarily wins you over with something smart or humourous only to lose you straight away with something stupid or banal. Near the end when the Ghostbusters were battling possessed parade balloons I found myself going along with it alright until the entry of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man brought me out all over again. It is this mismatch that made it difficult for me to really get drawn into the movie.

The movie’s best resource is its main cast, which played a vital role in saving this movie from its lesser qualities. Wiig and McCarthy’s characters are the straight players of the ensemble so they don’t get many opportunities to be funny. When the chances do present themselves though, they make it work (Wiig’s delivery of “Burn in hell” is comedic gold). McKinnon, with her crazed expressions and deadpan deliveries, is splendid as Holtzmann, the film’s strongest character. Jones also does well with what she has, although what the movie gives her is quite limiting. I liked the idea of turning the practice of having a stupid but attractive woman in every comedy on its head by casting Hemsworth as the male equivalent but found the execution uneven. Sometimes it works but other times they make him too stupid. Between them they cannot make every joke work because the material is often just too weak but, when the movie does give them something good, they knock it out of the park.

All in all, I neither love nor hate this movie. I don’t think it’s a betrayal of the original Ghostbusters but it certainly isn’t its equal. The Ghostbusters of 1984 was its own weird and wonderful thing that can never be recaptured (we know because they tried in 1989), so I’m glad that they at least tried to do something different with the property. I just think that the result is a mixed bag. The movie is funny and creative enough that I can understand why someone would like it but it is also tedious and awkward enough that I can understand someone disliking it. In either case it most certainly isn’t worth all of the abhorrence and antagonism that has been generated around it. Anyone who claims that this movie has ruined their childhood needs to get a life. Anyone opposed to the idea of a major franchise making a movie with a female ensemble needs to grow up. At the end of the day Ghostbusters is a clumsy but sometimes enjoyable mess and you can either take it or leave it.

★★★