Tag: marielle heller

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the Esquire article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod, the biographical drama “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” manages to stand out a bit from its contemporaries because it is able to capture the essence of Fred Rogers (known to many Americans as Mr. Rogers)—even though the work itself is not about him. It employs slow but purposeful pacing to fascinate, silence to give us room to consider, and irregular beats to draw us deeply into the conflict surrounding a man who cannot find it within himself to forgive his father.

Matthew Rhys plays investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel with a convincing weariness. One looks at his face even for just a few seconds and seething anger can be felt. But the anger is not menacing; rather it is the kind that eats up its host little by little, decade after decade. This anger reaches a boiling point when Lloyd’s father (Chris Cooper) is suddenly thrown back into his life. Rhys delivers a solid performance that stands strong alongside Tom Hanks’ interpretation of the legendary Mr. Rogers. When the two are engaged in a reflective exchange, for instance, they manage to hit every subtle emotion seemingly without effort. When the camera is up close and personal and emotions are exorcised, it feels like a dance.

I think it is a challenge to pull off this type of script. A jaded person crossing paths with a saintly figure and the former learning to have a more positive outlook on life by the end of the story is nothing particularly new. However, there are enough fresh ideas here to blindside the viewers from identifying the more familiar turns of the plot—like taking Mr. Rogers’ empathetic/humanistic approach of dealing with “the mad” one feels, which is targeted toward children, and applying this idea to adults. Had it been helmed by heavier hands, it could have been reduced to yet another Lifetime drama where everyone cries during the climax and all is happy by the end credits. Marielle Heller’s direction is careful and nuanced, so the journey comes across genuine.

Having seen Morgan Neville’s terrific documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, I admit I was put off by Hanks’ performance initially. The film opens with Mr. Rogers entering his home, making eye contact with the viewers, taking off the blazer, putting on the famous red cardigan… while singing the theme song. Although I did not grow up with Mr. Rogers or his television program, I felt as though Hanks is more on the side of imitation rather than simply inhabiting.

Having said that, I grew to enjoy his version of Mr. Rogers about a third of the way through—when the character is no longer shooting another episode in front of the camera. Curiously, he remains to be a saint-like figure. It is acknowledged Mr. Rogers is not perfect and does feel anger from time to time, but this is shown only once. The fact that he had challenging relationships with his sons is mentioned, but it is disappointing that it is not delved into. It would have been appropriate because the central conflict revolves around father and son. The thought of the picture being afraid of putting a stain on Rogers’ memory and legacy crossed my mind.

Despite this key shortcoming, I was emotionally engaged by the film. I wondered not necessarily whether Lloyd would choose to forgive his father but rather if he could forgive himself in allowing so many years to pass for harboring so much anger and hatred. Make no mistake that this is Lloyd’s story, not Mr. Roger’s. It does, however, make an appropriate and worthy companion piece with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in that both provide layers worth examining closely.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Propelled with a dreary but realistic look of early ‘90s New York City, a caustic sense of humor, and surprisingly affecting turns, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the true story of a biographer, Lee Israel, who impersonates once famous and now deceased writers through witty correspondences and sells the forged letters—nearly four hundred of them before she got caught by the FBI—from fifty to several hundreds of dollars at a time. It is a fascinating story that is truly of its time. Perhaps most importantly, even though the character we follow is—on the surface—unpleasant, boorish, and prideful, clearly there is love and care put into the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty because we are invited to look beyond behavior and try to understand the motivations behind Israel’s criminal proclivities. We do not have to like the character because the film proves she, like her forged documents, is worth putting under a magnifying glass.

Melissa McCarthy portrays Israel with such plainness in terms of physicality that at times I’d forgotten I was a watching a performer known mostly for her comic roles. In a way, this is McCarthy’s strongest work to date because she is able to scrub off her previous personas—a number of them quite memorable (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy”)—and deliver a character worthy of being taken seriously despite the crimes the protagonist commits.

She is savagely efficient, for instance, when Israel makes a sharp retort against another (a friend, an agent, a potential lover), perhaps even one that is mean or unfair, and then changes her expression a certain way as if incite us to penetrate through that small window of vulnerability. And yet—we are not meant to feel sorry for the subject. After all, she knowingly jeopardizes jobs of people who are trying to make an honest living. However, we are asked to ponder over her desperation on several levels: as a writer who fears for her failing career, as an aging woman who is single and lonely (she claims she loves her cat more than other people), and as a human being who is unable to recognize her true worth because she often gets in her own way.

I admired that Marielle Heller’s direction does not focus on a typical parabola of redemption. Yes, there are redemptive elements toward the end but notice the emphasis on the excitement Israel finds herself addicted to as she executes her schemes. Having money is secondary; this woman has yearned for so long to feel alive. Prior to her chicanery, her addiction is alcohol. It is curious how that addiction is rerouted when she feels fulfilled artistically—as ephemeral as it is. Note, too, how the performer changes the way the character carries herself and her behavior when being behind on paying bills is no longer the most immediate problem. Many parts change, in subtle ways, as the story progresses and evolves. It is not about plot but rather how it is about the plot.

I wished, however, that more forged letters were shown on screen or revealed via voiceover. The ones presented to us are funny and full of personality, but it is curious that out of hundreds we come across only about ten to fifteen. Even then, out of this handful, most of them are shown so quickly, the viewers do not get enough time to appreciate certain lines and implications. I was so curious about the details of the letters that I noticed even a paragraph break is important when it comes to making a point or delivering the punchline of a clever string of wordplay. Perhaps it was done this way to keep the drama buoyant; I would have preferred a more colorful and risk-taking approach.

Nevertheless, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a successful character study. Part of the reason are the vibrant but believable supporting performances, especially by Richard E. Grant as a drug dealer who becomes friends with Israel and eventual parter-in-crime, who sheds light on the subject’s different sides. I also enjoyed Dolly Wells as Anna, a local book dealer who becomes romantically interested in the forger. As they spend a nice time together, we wonder how it might work between someone who is genuine and someone who deals with literal fabrications.