Monday, 24 December 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) - Movie Review spending pretty much an entire day talking about Orson Welles and F For Fake not long ago, I feel like I’m beating a dead horse here… but let’s talk about ‘fake art’. Forgery on its own is already a pretty dicey prospect, but applying that to the creative arts like painting, filmmaking or writing opens up whole new dilemmas to the equation. And indeed, much like Elmyr de Hory, sometimes deliberate artistic imitation can be called out and still considered to be as worthy as the genuine article. Rather than just rehash the F For Fake argument, let’s instead see how that mindset of 'fake art' applies to this film, a based-on-actual-events of a writer who forged letters from famous writers and actors.

Well, starting on a good note, the casting is pretty much perfect. Melissa McCarthy brings her stock character of the foul-mouthed grouch and applies it to a real-life person, resulting in easily the most successful attempts at watchable abrasiveness she’s done yet. She gets across the definite unsavouriness of writer Lee Israel, and yet because of her performance as well as the framing around it, she still comes across as someone worth sympathy, if not outright empathy. And opposite her, Richard E. Grant as yet another enjoyable drunkard lets him tap into his sardonic camp wheelhouse, resulting in a solid complement to Israel’s mannerisms and a damn fun presence in his own right. He himself is also far from innocent in the scheme of things as a character, but much like the lead, everything fits together to bring out the abrasiveness while still allowing for some sympathy.

The reasons why are two-fold: The film is honest about the criminality of Israel’s actions, but also the environment that pushed her into doing so. It seems like writer Nicole Holofcener has a real knack for bringing out the emotional connection in quite unlikeable people, as the script does a great job at showing the trials and tribulations that are trying to make a career out of writing. It deals in the narcissistic attitude that comes with famous writers, but it also delves into the reasons why people put up with such things in those with a name for themselves, yet don’t accept it from those who haven’t gotten there yet. Add to that the pretty heartbreaking financial issues that Israel was going through at the time, and while it’s hard to defend her actions, it’s also hard not to feel bad for her.

And the funny thing about all this is how her crime, passing off her writing as that of someone else’s, is a bizarrely common thing in the creative arts. Maybe not as explicitly, but with how marketing trends get followed in fields like book writing or screenwriting or even blogging, there is a certain expectation that a writer will bend to certain trends in order to get noticed. Like how, after Twilight started getting major press, anyone who had an even-slightly similar romance story involving fantastical creatures were getting their work sent to bookstores by the truckload.

And for those with the will to try and make it as a writer, that kind of pressure can be difficult to handle. When you see someone whose work you genuinely don’t like doing better than yourself in the same field, it can be a sore blow to the ego. And ego is what makes the cult of personality around writers thrive, so it becomes this ouroboros that ends up fuelling a lot of the more… colourful attitudes certain writers have regarding their work and themselves.

Not that the general public seems to care one way or another. That’s the weirdest part of this entire concept, and something that brings this film into the realm of surprisingly poignant: If it reads like the famous writer, then it might as well be their work. I brought up F For Fake and Elmyr de Hory at the start, but the thing is that, even after he got exposed as an art forger, galleries still carry some of his work as a "genuine" from a famous painter. Because in this world of art appreciation, where the name on the tag is more valuable than the price right next to it, it is enough just to have something that feels like it is a genuine work, rather than actually being one.

Art is art at the end of the day, and even when it comes to forgery, there is still an aspect of artistry involved in its creation. I mean, Banksy is one of the most recognised names in the art world and most of his work falls under the less-than-legal.

All of this put together results in a character study about a writer who lied her way into notoriety and the surprisingly complicated mechanics of the establishment that bought the lie, even willingly. This is quite impressive work, and it marks a serious high point in Melissa McCarthy’s career, applying her typical on-screen persona to an amazingly well-fitted story.

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