Can You Ever Forgive Me?

* * *

Melancholic, indeed dour, with a colour palette of (too much) brown and grey, Marielle Heller’s real-life tale of small(ish) time literary fraud is resolutely one-note, as is Melissa McCarthy’s central performance as Lee Israel, a biographical author who, jobless and desperate in early-90s Manhattan, began a small(ish) life of literary crime. Luckily, the film has a few joltingly interesting twists and turns, and Richard E. Grant, who is, has been and always will be joltingly interesting.

Heller’s direction is uninspired. She uses four montage sequences, each of which could have been replaced with a single, inventive scene. Voice-over narration has often been given a critical cold shoulder, but surely montage sequences are cinema’s ultimate lazy storytelling device. Here, they may as well signify potential toilet breaks.

But the story, small as it is, is intriguing, and Grant, big as he is, is super watchable. He’s playing a very to-type role – sad and flamboyant – but that’s his stock in trade and he owns it. Also, the period set design – Manhattan in winter – is superb; the story evolves mostly in pubs, bookstores, libraries and antique shops, and all ring both true and poetically evocative. I lived in Manhattan then, and I’ve been in those places, with their cramped, wooden, dusty romance. That spirit is present, and helps the film stay alive amidst its strident sadness.



** (out of five)

Even Rose Byrne, who has consistently been scoring the most comic goals in supporting roles in American studio comedies over the last few years, is left high and comedically dry by the script and direction of Spy, a generally unfunny, very expensive misfire that is often embarrassing to watch. Byrne manages to achieve a final moment of dignity in her last shot in the film with a subtle piece of physical comedy, but her co-star (and the star of the film) Melissa McCarthy has no such luck; her performance – and ninety-five percent of the movie – is laugh-free.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, the desk-bound earworm for Bond-like CIA agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). As he roams a generic gorgeous villa amongst generic baddies, she, in Virginia, directs his movements through an earpiece. She’s madly in love with him, of course, or at least in awe-love. When something happens to him, and she’s called to follow up by being deployed in the field, her actual abilities are put to the test.

Or something like that. The plot is obviously just a hanger on which to drape jokes, if there were any. That’s not fair – there are plenty of jokes, but they’re almost all stale, in bad taste, or simply not funny (usually all three). What should be comic gold – especially Jason Statham taking the piss out of his own image – is tragically, toe-curlingly flat, all due to the script. Statham has a monologue that outlines the many ways his character, über-tough spy Rick Ford, has cheated death; it should’ve been brilliant, but it feels like the “vomit draft”, the splurge of words used to denote a paragraph of a screenplay that is meant to be polished later. Nothing seems to have been polished here at all.

McCarthy remains an enigma to me, and not a good one. If she’s the funniest thing in movies at the moment, I’m missing the joke. Her persona – that of a sad sack, jealous of the beautiful people around her and depressed at not being one – is not funny, and here it takes place of character, which really confuses the movie, for Cooper is meant to be a fierce and highly skilled fighter. There is no consistency or through-line. One moment she’s kicking ass, the next she’s screaming “I shat my pants” as a way to stealthily follow her mark.

Twice-Emmied Bobby Cannavale cranks up the ham to play a third-act villain. He and Byrne are an item, and so far they’ve got the recent version of Annie, and this, under their belts as a couple in the same film. Separately, they’re often brilliant, and in good projects. Just sayin’.

Allison Janney is wasted in a role that should have been hysterical. It’s a crime to get Janney, a brilliant comedian, and give her crap to work with. Playing a CIA boss, there was endless opportunity to riff on her hard-edged persona accumulated through The West Wing and myriad other turns. Instead, she’s been given expositional, generic text, mainly glued into a drab chair. The wastefulness of her brilliance is emblematic of this bloated movie. So many good resources were involved, and so little of value appears on screen.

With some big-budget comedies that don’t work, it is often reported that at least the actors appear to have been having a good time, but one can’t say that here. Everyone looks strained, confused or downright desperate; I imagine some of these talented performers wishing they could finesse their lines but unable to since “We’ve only got the Vi Del Corso for two more hours!” Only Miranda Hart, from Call The Midwife, comes out alive, playing Cooper’s colleague and ally Nancy. She spends about half of her performance on the phone, and I imagine she was given the opportunity to just riff. Thank goodness. She’s in a completely different movie, but at least it’s a funny one.

St. Vincent

** (out of five)

St_Vincent_posterContrived and melodramatic, Theodore Melfi’s debut feature St. Vincent is a desperate, “look at me!” example of screenwriting-by-numbers. Every possible story beat is walloped within an inch of its pre-programmed life: you’re meant to cry at minute eighty-nine, but by god you’re gonna cheer at minute ninety-four!

Bill Murray, in an Oscar-baiting performance, is very good, as is Naomi Watts (as a hooker with a heart of gold!), and that’s it. They’re doing their best in a seriously derivative, predictable and frankly schmaltzy tale of an old Brooklyn boozer, Vincent, who starts looking after the enjoyably upbeat son of his new neighbour, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, the most over-rated actress in Hollywood, again delivering a completely unbelievable performance, alongside her ludicrous Tammy, also of 2014).

The kid is played by a genial fellow named Jaeden Lieberher, and he’s fine, and the scenes between him and Murray have no essential problems in the acting department. It’s the script that is terrible. The only reason you won’t be able to predict each of the gazillion creaky plot twists is because you’ll be astounded, in this day and age, that someone made such an obvious, over-used, creaky, old-fashioned, easy choice. Spoiler alert: just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, Vincent has a stroke. Cue acting. Sorry, Bill; they’re not gonna give you an Oscar for this.