Ponder the Enigmatic Value of Art in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'
"I think I realize I'm not a real writer," says Melissa McCarthy's character during the dramatic climax of her latest movie. In it she plays Lee Israel, a real life author who began forging original correspondence of more famous authors to pay the bills when her own work began stalling in the early 1990s.
In many ways that line, which is said in resignation during a court proceeding after Israel is eventually caught for her crimes, is a thesis statement for the film. But is it true?
There's no question that what Israel did was wrong. It was fraud in the purest sense, misleading people into buying items under knowingly false pretenses.
That's not what I'm interested in. I'm more fascinated by the enigmatic value of her art.
The movie makes clear that Israel is a skilled writer. Her books are well respected, and the forgeries she creates are consistently sold for impressive amounts of money. In other words, her writing is valuable. But the stuffy literary world of New York is clearly far from a meritocracy. The collectors are not paying for good writing, despite what they might think. They are paying for any writing by a noteworthy author, which they in turn perceive to be good. It's a sentiment echoed by a conversation between Israel and her agent early in the film, when Israel complains that Tom Clancy is being given a $3 million advance for his next book "because he's famous."
Value comes from an undefinable formula that I have found myself thinking about a lot. The value of a certain piece of writing can be determined only by balancing the intrinsic worth of the combination of words themselves, the perception of the one who crafted that combination, and in the case of non-fiction where Israel (any myself) operate, the judgement of the subject of that writing.
I'll give an example to better explain. My writing hero is Malcolm Gladwell. He is releasing a new book this year. I'm going to buy it immediately, no matter the price, read it, almost certainly enjoy it, and believe it to be enormously valuable. Do I like it because it because it is well written? Because it is written by Gladwell? Or because it is about a subject I'm interested in ("Talking to Strangers" is the title)? Can any one of those factors overwhelm the others to the point that they're less important?
And if the value comes from something other than the writing she produced, as Israel grapples with, is she even a real writer?
That we can even debate the merits of this underlying message, without being caught up in the craftsmanship of the movie, is quite an accomplishment for 39-year-old director Marielle Heller. I can't remember the last time a Melissa McCarthy vehicle has been recognized as anything other than...well...a Melissa McCarthy vehicle.
Everything about this production is so understated that it almost feels like an insult to call it entirely competent. The set and costumes are unassuming, the script is far from showy, the cinematography isn't glamorous. And yet it passes the most important test of any of those categories: immersion. Heller has created a world that feels lived in, real, and more importantly one that we as viewers fall into and become a part of throughout the breezy 106-minute run time.
Meanwhile McCarthy shows a depth that I personally have never seen before in her work. She is in the historic position of being nominated for a Razzie and an Oscar in the same year, giving one of the year's worst performances in The Happytime Murders and one of the best here. Yet this success is about more than McCarthy just getting the de-glam treatment often associated with "comedic actress breaks serious."
Her precise performance in this film confirms to me that the sin of her career is in choice of projects rather than ability. In becoming one of Hollywood's most bankable stars she became a caricature of the crazy, overweight buffoon of Bridesmaids over and over again, cast as a lead in movies that are at best forgettable and at worst horrific. Here she's been given room to be complex, to be funny and tragic and mischievous and hundreds of shades of gray in between, and she nails it. Her recognition by the Academy is justified, as is that of Richard E. Grant, who is given a far less complicated role as a colorful comic relief sidekick. As we know, in the Best Supporting Actor category there is plenty of room for one-note performances as long as they are infinitely charming, and Grant's is.
All told this is a worthy movie, albeit unspectacular. In truth, it's the type of movie that is ceasing to exist. It's not splashy enough to have big box office appeal, and not grandiose enough to draw major awards buzz. It can't be a smart business investment. Just like the themes being addressed within the movie, I question its value in the marketplace. Yet I encourage its creation all the same!
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The similarities between this late period Coen brothers drama and Can You Ever Forgive Me? are really hard to ignore. In both cases, a struggling artist battles between his/her artistic integrity and commercial viability, is a jerk unnecessarily to everyone he/she meets, and suffers from self-destructive angst created by living an unfulfilled life. They even both feature the famous "save the cat" plot device birthed by the famous screenwriting book of the same name!
Only Inside Llewyn Davis is superior in every way. And I'm not just saying that because I'm a devotee of the Coens. The struggle here is more emotional, the artistic integrity is more noble, the jerkiness is more cutting, the angst is more...angsty. If nothing else, this movie benefits from incredible folk music that accentuates its melancholy. And as good as McCarthy was, Oscar Isaac's lead performance was boundlessly better. I'll admit, it's far from a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick. It's sad, depressing even. But it's beautiful. One of my favs.
Sunderland Till I Die (2018)
Ok here is where I truly break from form, because this project has absolutely nothing to do with our theme of the week. It's not even a movie! Apologies. But I discovered a documentary series this week, which was released in December, that really kind of blew me away.
The series follows the Sunderland Association Football Club (soccer) for a season after being relegated (dropped out) of the Premier League (England's top league). But the action on the field is less interesting to me than the culture of the town, which is dedicated to the sport in a way that I've never seen before. The team is their obsession, their religion. It's like Friday Night Lights on a much much larger scale. Seeing how the dynamics of sports and fandom are in some ways similar and some ways different across the pond is fascinating. The access the crew got is fantastic, and you really become invested in the club from the top down. Well worth your time.