CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (2018)

November 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite her regular role in all 7 seasons of “Gilmore Girls” and her co-lead role in the 6 season run of “Mike and Molly”, it was her raunchy turn in 2011’s BRIDESMAIDS that turned Melissa McCarthy into a star. Since then, she has been the lead in a string of comedies written specifically for her: IDENTITY THIEF, THE HEAT, TAMMY, SPY, THE BOSS, and GHOSTBUSTERS: ANSWER THE CALL. Mixed in was an overlooked little film called ST. VINCENT, a Bill Murray vehicle in which Ms. McCarthy first flashed some dramatic chops. With this latest, she shows that she’s no one-trick pony, but the character is a bit too narrow, and the material a bit too bland to convince us whether she is up to becoming an Oscar-caliber dramatic lead.

That’s not to say her performance isn’t noteworthy, because it is. She plays Lee Israel, a real life writer who had success as a celebrity biographer in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and then turned to a life of crime as a forger of collectible letters. This (mostly) true story of Ms. Israel features Ms. McCarthy in a poorly cut wig, very little make-up and the frumpiest of frumpy clothes. She’s also an aggressively bitter person who, in the film’s opening scene, get fired from her job in 1991 for drinking scotch at her desk and telling a co-worker to “F-off”. Classy, she’s not. Her actions and this firing are our indoctrination into her caustic personality.

Director Marielle Heller is no stranger to examining the life of someone who is not so happy, as she is best known as the writer/director of THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015). Her latest is adapted from Lee Israel’s memoir by screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (ENOUGH SAID, 2013) and Jeff Whitty. After her firing, Ms. Israel hits desperate times. Her publisher (an always terrific Jane Curtain) tells her that a Fanny Brice biography has no market, and that no one wants to work with Israel anymore … she has burned every bridge. Fanny Brice and Tom Clancy both take some shots here as Israel tries to defend herself by dragging down others … a personality trait not uncommon among those who are so miserable in life.

As we watch this alcoholic, slovenly, abrasive person muddle through days – only showing any affection for her pet cat – there is quite a clever scene that could seem like filler were it not for what happens soon afterwards. Ms. Israel is at home watching THE LITTLE FOXES on TV and we see her perfectly mimicking Bette Davis. This ability to imitate others leads her into a career path of forging and selling personal letters “from” the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. It also finds her crossing paths with miscreant Jack Hock (a flamboyant and energetic Richard E Grant). The two misfits form an odd friendship and partnership that begins to cash flow.

A sequence between independent bookstore owner Anna (a talented and under-utilized Dolly Wells) and Lee Israel teases us with the idea of a love interest, but Ms. McCarthy is unable to convince us that Lee’s vulnerability is genuine, and the potential relationship soon fizzles thanks to Lee’s crankiness and criminal path. While watching, I couldn’t help but feel that I was being manipulated into feeling sympathy towards Lee Israel, simply because she is a lonely female criminal. Typically male criminals in movies are social outcasts to be despised and/or feared, so this trickery is a bit unsettling. Personally, I find it difficult to muster sympathy towards any criminal, no matter their gender or how pathetic their life and personality might be.

The best film to date about a forger, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, worked because of the cat and mouse between good and bad, and the criminal at the center was overflowing with personality. Here, we are stuck with a curmudgeon who uses multiple typewriters to create fake letters … all in the confines of a dirty apartment she shares with her cat. Were it not for Ms. McCarthy’s expertise at delivering caustic one-liners or Mr. Grant’s impeccable comic timing, this drama would fall flat. If we ever doubted the manipulation, be prepared for two kitty cat scenes designed to elicit “aww” from the audience.

Director Heller does a nice job of presenting an early 1990’s feel for New York, including the gay bar Julius’, which is evidently still in existence today. There is also an interesting point made about how collectors want to believe, so the authentication process is crucial to the industry – though we can’t help but wonder about potential fraud. On the downside, there is really nothing dryer than watching a writer write … even someone as miserable as Lee Israel, and even on collectible typewriters. Additionally, the score and soundtrack were much too loud for the film, and proved quite distracting in certain scenes. A Paul Simon song near the end seems like a plea for Oscar consideration, but by then, we are just relieved that the bad guy got caught. But that kitty … aww.

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THE BOSS (2016)

April 7, 2016

the boss Greetings again from the darkness. Movie profanity and crude humor are best used selectively, and certainly not as a comedy crutch. Melissa McCarthy has not built her career on subtlety, but even for her standards, this latest comes across as a lazy effort with missed opportunities for both laughs and a message.

Ms. McCarthy re-teams with those responsible for Tammy (2014), including her husband writer/director Ben Falcone and co-writer Steve Mallory. Here she plays Michelle Darnell, an egotistical hyped-up business tycoon with no sense of integrity or humanity … constantly wearing an odd turtleneck. Somehow the filmmakers thought it a good idea to explain this lack of soul showing a young Michelle being continually “returned” to her orphanage (run by a nun played by Margo Martindale).

When Michelle’s business rival (and former business associate and former lover) Renault/Ron (Peter Dinklage) turns her into the SEC for insider trading, the correlations with Martha Stewart become impossible to ignore. There is even an acknowledgment of this by McCarthy’s character. Once released from white collar prison, Michelle hits rock bottom and ends up sleeping on her former assistant’s sofa. Kristen Bell is Claire, the assistant that Michelle once dumped on and now crashes with. Ms. Bell is mostly relegated to “straight man” to McCarthy’s string of lame punchlines.

In the spirit of exaggeration in lieu of creativity, three scenes in particular stand out: the street fight between rival scout troops, a ridiculous breast grope-off with McCarthy and Bell, and a clumsily staged sword fight between McCarthy and Dinklage. The missed opportunity to have a point about girls in business, and stooping to schmaltz with the Michelle family story are every bit as disappointing as the mostly unfunny and constant use of profanity-laced insults. Saying “suck his d***”over and over in one scene does not make it funny … in fact, it’s a bit sad.

Exacerbating the frustration is the misuse and underuse of such talents as Cecily Strong, Kristen Schaal, Tyler Labine, and Kathy Bates. Ella Anderson as Claire’s daughter does come across as a real kid, and she’s part of the best scenes in the movie. Somehow a movie that (finally) calls out the Girl Scouts on their unfair-to-girls business model, manages to disappoint on every other front.

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SPY (2015)

June 24, 2015

spy Greetings again from the darkness. Melissa McCarthy and writer/director Paul Feig are back together in hopes of recapturing their Bridesmaids comedy and box office magic. They are also re-teaming for next year’s all-female Ghostbusters remake.

This time it’s a parody of James Bond films … right down to the elaborate and creative opening credit sequence. Recognizing that combining action and comedy can be a bit challenging, Feig enlists the help of Jason Statham and Jude Law. Statham parodies his well known uber-intense characters with a running dialogue of his bravery and heroism, while Law is clearly having a blast as the ultra-smooth agent Bradley Fine (think Pierce Brosnan’s Bond).

In spite of the gentlemen, this is Ms. McCarthy’s film and she is believable as the frumpy CIA analyst who is the “voice in the ear” of super agent Fine (Law). He maneuvers the front line of dangerous assignments as she provides life-saving high-tech guidance from the relative safety of the vermin-infested basement CIA lab. Of course, we know McCarthy’s agent will end up in the field in her attempts to avenge a mission gone wrong.

It’s McCarthy in the field that will either make or break the film for you. Her scenes with Rose Byrne and Peter Serafinowicz worked best for me, while her Jackie Chan-style kitchen fight scene and her chase scenes were a bit more difficult to buy off on. It can be confusing as a viewer when we are constantly bombarded with PC rules, and then Feig and McCarthy don’t hesitate to use her heft for laughs.

Other supporting work is provided by British comedienne Miranda Hunt, another fish out of water agent; Morena Baccarin as a strutting super agent at the level of Statham; Bobby Cannavale as a would-be terrorist; and Allison Janney as the CIA Supervisor. While each have their moments, it’s McCarthy’s visit to the spy gadget department that provides the best laughs.

The Action-Comedy-Spy Thriller genre is pretty sparse, and as you may expect, comedy is the priority for most scenes. McCarthy does well in her first true film lead, though my prediction is that her value as an actress will ultimately come from playing characters who are more “real” – like her role in last year’s St. Vincent.


ST. VINCENT (2014)

October 19, 2014

st vincent Greetings again from the darkness. Moments after Bill Murray’s Vincent cracks a rare on screen “Chico and the Man” reference, we get our first glimpse of scrawny Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), and we immediately know where this story is headed. The fact that we never lose interest is thanks to Mr. Murray, the rest of the cast and writer/director Theodore Melfi (his first feature film).

Though this is ultra-predictable and even strains credulity, we nonetheless connect to Murray’s Vincent – a grumpy, drunken, slobby, chain-smoker who has a bond with a pregnant Russian prostitute/stripper (Naomi Watts). Melissa McCarthy plays Oliver’s mom Maggie, who has separated from her philandering husband, and is intent on making a life for her son. It’s here where it should be noted that Ms. McCarthy plays the role straight – none of her usual funny-fat moments. Instead, she excels in a scene with an emotional dump on Oliver’s principal and teacher (a standout Chris O’Dowd).

Surprisingly, this could even be described as a message movie. Vincent quickly notices that Oliver is lacking street smarts and sets out to correct this. The story reminds us that all people are multi-faceted. The good have their rough edges, and the “bad” likely have a back-story and some redeeming value. Vincent is so cantankerous that it takes a kid as appealing as Oliver to balance the story. Even knowing a feel good ending is coming, we as viewers don’t mind being dragged through the sap.

Murray is outstanding, and if the script had a bit more heft, he would probably garner some Oscar consideration. McCarthy deserves notice for going against type, and Naomi Watts flashes some real comedic timing (maybe the biggest surprise of all). O’Dowd has some of the best one-liners in the film, and shows again that he is immensely talented. Terrence Howard seems a bit out of place as a loan shark, but he has limited screen time, as does Ann Dowd as the nursing home director.

Prepare for the feel-bad-then-good ride, culminating in a school auditorium event that reunites the key characters, and allows the child actor to draw a tear or two from the audience. Good times that end with classic Murray over the closing credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have missed the fully-engaged Bill Murray last seen in Lost in Translation (2003)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: unpredictable endings are why you see movies

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BRIDESMAIDS

May 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kristen Wiig is everywhere these days! If you don’t know the name, you certainly know her face. She is credited with 26 projects since 2009 – and that doesn’t even count her weekly work on Saturday Night Live. She is the new Tina Faye … even though the “old” Tina Faye is still going very strong.

While I have little doubt that the success of The Hangover was a driving force behind the green lighting of this film, Ms. Wiig’s writing and acting talent elevate this mixture of chick-flick and comedy into one of the finest female film comedies in quite awhile. That’s probably not strong enough praise since the category is a bit sparse, but as a guy who gets really tired of the formulaic chick-flick rom-coms and sappy dramas, I found the film to be quite refreshing and entertaining.

 Sure, there are many similarities between this and The Hangover, but the difference is that the key element of female friendship is never far away from the often raunchy comedy we are witnessing. Women so value their BFF’s and Ms. Wiig and her writing partner Annie Mumolo (seen as a nervous plane passenger) never lose sight of this.

Also key to any group of female activity is the competitive nature and envious mutterings. They try so hard to appear happy for their friends, when often they are blinded by the current funk in which they find their own life. And look out when a beautiful, rich “new” friend enters the picture. The real fireworks begin … even in the battle for the last word on the mic at the engagement party! I am not going to give away any of the punchlines or set-ups, but I will highlight the cast. Maya Rudolph is Lillian, the bride to be and lifelong friend of Annie (Wiig); Ellie Kemper (The Office) is Becca, the goody-two shoes newlywed; Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911) is Rita, the bitter, frustrated long-time mother and wife looking for inspiration; Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly, Gilmore Girls) is Megan, the slapstick, gross-out comedy relief; Rose Byrne is Helen, the aforementioned seemingly perfect “new” friend; Chris O’Dowd (Blind Swordsman in Dinner for Schmucks) is Officer Rhodes, the nice guy who has a crush on Annie; Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as Annie’s Porsche driving bootie call; and Jill Clayburgh (her final film role) as Annie’s mom.

The film is produced by comedy expert Judd Apatow and directed by Paul Feig.  Mr. Feig was the creator of “Freaks and Geeks” and has been involved in most of the best TV comedies over the past 7 or 8 years.  Oddly enough, he also wrote and directed one of my favorite lost gems from 2003 called I Am David.  It’s a drama, not a comedy, but I recommend it.

Here is hoping Ms. Wiig continues to push the boundaries of creative comedy for women. I for one look forward to seeing women on screen as more than just love interests and femme fatales.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are starved for a real comedy with real women characters (written by women) OR you always wondered what a female Zach Galifianakis would look like

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hated The Hangover OR you prefer your chick flicks to be melodramatic and sappy, rather than raunchy and real