Archive for February, 2019

February 16, 2019

#149) Movie review: “Can You Ever Forgive Me”

Three months ago, if someone had asked me about Lee Israel, I would have said, “Who’s he?” When I saw the preview for “Can You Ever Forgive Me”, a biopic of literary forger Lenore Carol “Lee” Israel starring Melissa McCarthy, I thought, “Maybe if I’m stuck on a JetBlue flight from Boston to L.A. that’s running late and they’re showing this movie, I’ll watch it.” Recently, I found myself on a JetBlue flight from Boston to L.A. that was running late and they were showing this movie.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a film that should not work. It is about an obscure person, it’s slowly paced, lacks a marquis cast and has no main characters under the age of 40. I can’t imagine why anyone thought America would be interested in Lee Israel (and judging by the fact that as of this writing, the film is yet to make up its $10 million price tag at the box office, America isn’t.) Yet despite all of its liabilities on paper, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” delivers – a success as unlikely as the idea of a dowdy Jewish alcoholic lesbian has-been writer becoming a con artist.

In 1991, Lee Israel is a struggling Manhattan biographer. While she had some success in the past, she is now perceived by the literary community, in particular by her agent (Jane Curtin) as unfashionable, outdated and unwilling to play the game. She is reduced to selling used books to pay for her cat’s medications; at the store, insult is added to injury where her biography of Estee Lauder is being sold in the clearance section. A chance discovery of a long-lost Fanny Brice letter at a research library becomes a lightbulb moment for Israel. Stealing the letter, she takes it home, rolls it into her typewriter, adds her own post script and sells the new version to a collector. Before long, Israel is forging and selling letters allegedly written by the likes of Brice, Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, who was known to sarcastically ask, “Can you ever forgive me?” following her alcohol-fueled outbursts.

McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Lee Israel is a big reason why “Can You Ever Forgive Me” works. It’s been said that American actors are afraid of playing unlikeable characters. McCarthy didn’t get that memo: Lee Israel is not only unlikeable; she’s also boring. Unlike Frank Abagnale, Leo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can”, Israel is not charming, elegant or witty. The key is that McCarthy, director Marielle Heller and writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty aren’t trying to get us to like Lee Israel. The script gives Lee multiple chances to take the high road and she never does. What the movie accomplishes is making her real: someone whose grudges, moods and lack of social graces, however unappealing, are still relatable. Haven’t we all, at one point, resented the successes of others who might not be as skilled but know how to ingratiate themselves to the right people at the right time?

For all McCarthy brings to it, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” is not a one-woman show. Opposite her is Richard E. Grant, whose performance as Jack Hock earned him a best supporting actor nod. The decision to make Hock a roguish Brit (his real life counterpart was American) might feel gimmicky, but Grant gives the character depth. Below his gaudy exterior is a quick and sharp wit; below that is resignation. Perhaps Grant’s Hock grew up having to repress his homosexuality before enjoying liberation in the post Stonewall Riots era as a young man, only to then have to live under the threat of AIDS, which takes the lives of many of his friends. His bond with Israel stems not just from loneliness but a shared sense of loss of fleeting success and happiness.

The other main female character, shy bookstore owner and autograph buyer Anna (Dolly Wells) is a fictitious creation, but still a key part of the story: through her we see Lee’s struggle to let herself let others in. At first, Wells seems to play Anna as a typical wallflower, but the performance is more nuanced. Anna doesn’t want to hide behind her books; like Lee, she yearns to connect with others but doesn’t know how. Whereas Lee is embittered by having lost recognition and respect for what she feels are no good reasons, Anna has always lived in the shadows and can barely get herself to ask for acknowledgement.

The loneliness of Lee, Jack and Anna is compounded by another character in the movie: New York City. The New York of this film is not the lurid den of iniquity seen in “Taxi Driver” and “Midnight Cowboy” but rather a perpetually gray, snowy place that ignores its citizens who toil and sacrifice to make ends meet. Lee and Jack’s corner bar of choice is a respite from the cold but not particularly inviting in any other way. The warmth of Lee’s agent’s brownstone is superficial, bought by her pandering to popular tastes and telling people what they want to hear.

The film’s shortcomings are minor. My main issue is the cat: does a film that achieves so much with understatement really need to resort to the cat lady trope to show Lee’s lack of meaningful human relationships? Also, some of the plot seems a little convenient: after the FBI sends out alerts about Lee, wouldn’t her buyers be suspicious when the quirky Englishman suddenly shows up wanting to sell the same type of memorabilia? Perhaps they don’t want to believe the worst about Lee; perhaps 1991 was a more innocent time; whatever the reason, they seem only mildly concerned about what would probably be a giant red flag today.

These points aside, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” exceeded my expectations by more than any movie I’ve seen in a while. No, it’s not for all tastes, but for those who might be a little tired of origin stories, remakes and sequels, it hits the spot. Lee Israel might not have been a noble protagonist, but I wouldn’t have minded sitting next to her on a JetBlue flight that’s running late.

 

 

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February 4, 2019

#148) How not to complain #8: Sorry Jeff Pearlman, the Patriots are not the problem

Hey, Jeff, how’s it going. Fellow tribesman sports geek David Lockeretz here. Complaining is in our blood, but when you called Super Bowl LIII the worst ever, was your intent to show the NFL how it can improve or were you just upset that the Patriots won? I get that you’re a New Yorker and I’m a Bostonian, so there are certain sportsball issues on which we will not see eye to eye, but calling Super Bowl LIIII the worst ever is a charge that is hard to back up objectively.

Let’s start with the margin of victory. At 10 points, the margin in LIII was below the historical average of 13.9. Yes, it was the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever – but it was close, something that cannot be said for many Super Bowls. It was only the second Super Bowl ever (after XXXIX*) to enter the fourth quarter tied, keeping the David vs. Goliath storyline intact. No, the game wasn’t particularly elegant, but by your own admission, Super Bowl XV, the game that turned you into a fan, was “technically poor.”

Yes, there was a blown call in the Saints/Rams NFC championship game. Why weren’t the Saints able to put the game away after jumping out to a 13-0 lead? Why did Drew Brees throw an interception in overtime? If the NFL is scripted, wouldn’t the refs have done everything they could do stage a Brees/Brady Super Bowl? If The Rams Didn’t Belong In The Super Bowl Because The Refs Blew The Call, isn’t it karma that the Pats won? Sports will always have a human element and humans aren’t perfect.

Moving on to the half time show. I’m no Maroon 5 fan, but was their performance really the “lamest…in modern memory?” Jeff, were you on the edge of your seat for Coldplay? Did the Who’s 2010 performance make you beeline to the local record store to get “Tommy” on vinyl? Is it a Good Thing that “many musicians made it clear…that they would no longer support the league’s entertainment efforts”?

Which brings us to the issue of race. You write, “This is the NFL trying to convince us (via advertisements featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches) that the whole Colin Kaepernick thing never happened; that — hey! — we love when blacks speak out, just as long as it doesn’t affect our image or our profits.” True perhaps – but would a 41-38 Kansas City win over New Orleans magically have made everyone suddenly see eye to eye on anthem protests and come together like the people in Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad? I’d bet a GE dishwasher that had African-American quarterback Patrick Mahomes won the Super Bowl for the Chiefs, the NFL brass would have found a way to make his moment about themselves and how much they love diversity. The Patriots’ successes and the NFL’s woes are independent.

I’m not asking you or anyone else to love that the Patriots won yet again. To borrow an adage that used to be said of the Yankees (*cough* before they started sucking *cough*), rooting for the Patriots is like rooting for Brad Pitt to get the girl or Bill Gates to win the lottery. But why make yourself just a generic voice in the Patriot haters crowd? Maybe you just need to blow off steam. Understandable. But if you’re looking for meaningful change in the NFL fan experience to come from your deconstruction of Super Bowl LIII, you will be as disappointed as everyone west of the New York state line.

*I decided to take the high road by not pointing out that XXXIX was another New England victory.