Two Versions of Misspent Lives

One Literary Trickster of the 1990’s and One Family Breaking Apart in the 1960’s

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Melissa McCarthy (as Lee Israel) and Richard E. Grant ask for another drink in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy, proud portrayer of the loudmouth and practitioner of the pratfall, takes an intriguing new tack in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” playing a wily fraudster. It turns out she makes a convincing charlatan, clever enough to take in experts in the autograph collecting trade (Now in theaters, the film is rated “R” for language and runs for 106 mins.).

Based on an autobiography, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the story of Lee Israel, a New York writer of celebrity biographies (Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Hepburn, etc.) whose well has dried up by 1991. She is behind on the rent, and she has only a feline for company. “I’m a 51-year-old woman who likes cats better than people,” she states.

Trying to pitch her latest effort (a bio of comedienne Fanny Brice), Lee gets strong pushback from her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin), who sourly suggests that Israel seek another line of work. Perusing a library book on Brice, she discovers an original letter written by the actress, which she tries to sell to a local bookshop run by Anna (Dolly Wells). Advised that the autograph is sales worthy, she is also told that the text is anodyne and would sell for more with some distinctive element. Enticed by the prospect, Lee confects a fake—and clever—postscript, which she peddles for serious cash.

Thus, she begins inventing (on various typewriters) cunning letters from famous authors, Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, inter alia, and receives comfortable cash payments to bolster her life and her ego. A chance meeting with a gay lay-about, Jack Hock (Richard T. Grant), in her local watering hole proves positive in that he encourages her in her fraud and becomes a drinking buddy. The ruse bolsters them both, until it doesn’t, when one collector questions the authenticity of one of her notes. Feeling vulnerable with her normal sources, she enlists the daffy Jack to stand in for her. Their continuing scam effort does not go well…

The film, directed by Marielle Heller, is pitched down, both in its muted actions and its amber to brown tones, as befits the subject of a failing drunk living out a life at the typewriter and hanging out in saloons. Yet she has Jack Hock, personified trippingly by Grant, a vagrant will-of-the-wisp, a garrulous Brit up for a main chance or a lark, but utterly irresponsible and exhibiting the attention span of a fly. When Lee gives him the simple task of looking out for her apartment for a few days, you know he will mess up big time. His principal gift in life—which Lee comes to appreciate—is being a good bar mate.

McCarthy’s comic persona here is caustic and sardonic, appropriate to a woman who has always been alone (and preferred it that way) and now sees her livelihood threatened and her creative self quashed. A particularly poignant display of self-awareness comes when she testifies at her own trial, both recognizing her crimes yet still viewing them as offering the most inventive writing of her career (“I’m not copying, I’m creating”), a realization that the real Lee Israel came to recognize in herself. This tough gal may not be laugh-out-loud funny but should win many wry smiles.

Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson, Ed Oxenbould as Joe Brinson, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson in “Wildlife.” Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Wildlife
Based on a Richard Ford novel, “Wildlife” is a domestic drama of lower middle-class lives thwarted both by fate and personality, of a family struggling to stay together in small town Montana in 1960. It is narrated by a teenage boy who observes his parents drift apart while he is powerless to affect their dissolution. The American character actor Paul Dano directs for the first time, and he gives it the weight and complexity it deserves. (This film is rated “PG-13” and runs 104 mins.)

The Brinson family has recently moved to Great Falls, where husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) works at a local golf course. His wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is a housewife and former

substitute teacher. Their only child is Joe (Ed Oxenbould) a withdrawn 14-year-old who serves (as in the novel) as our wide-eyed witness to his family’s foibles. When Dad loses his job at the course (“I’m too well liked,” is his excuse), he decides precipitously to take a job fighting forest fires in the western part of the state, leaving Mom and Joe to fend for themselves.

Mom gets a job at a car dealership but finds herself lonely enough to take up with the owner Warren Miller (Bill Camp), who has the nicest house in town. One night, Joe gets a preview of grown-up life when he and Jeanette are invited to Miller’s house for dinner, an evening where he sees mom succumb to drink and some folderol with their host. He can only hope that his father soon returns. And Jerry does, flush with tales of the fires and faced with a disillusioned wife who wants to move to out. Joe can only wonder what his future role is in this fractured family.

Dano, who works from an adaptation written by another actor of his generation, Zoe Kazan (Emily in “The Big Sick”), uses a very studied style for his first feature, avoiding a moving camera and presenting scenes with mostly static set-ups within which his subjects move in and out. He uses only limited close-ups to emphasize significant dialogue (such as a telling heart-to-heart between Joe and Warren that is both riveting and unsettling). The apparent placidity of the shots belies the unseen turmoil within each principal’s mind.

This is not the first time British actress Carey Mulligan has played an American (“Mudbound,” The Great Gatsby”), but it is clearly a new kind of role for her: a hard-to-read woman pursuing an ambition she cannot really define. She’s unpredictable, a little cruel, and possessed of an inchoate independent streak: a hard person to like. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry is more open but needy and feckless, foundering to make sense of his life. Both actors nail the natures of these limited souls.

The adult in the room is Ed Oxenbould as Joe. While mainly seen taking things in, wide-eyed, he is the one character who delivers the occasional sensible line, who is silently critiquing what his parents are going through. Young Ed, an Australian actor, made his breakthrough film in “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day“ where he was the put-upon Alexander. He has graduated to a “no good, very bad” family but is its only reason for hope.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.