Tag: melissa mccarthy

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.


Ghostbusters (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The problem with this remake of the 1984 “Ghostbusters” is a lack of a consistent engagement where laughs turn into gasps of horror, and vice-versa, as well as its dearth of genuine curiosity despite its main characters being scientists who aim to provide incontrovertible proof of the paranormal. One may not be blamed for thinking that the studios simply green-lit the project to make money without the intention of ever providing solid entertainment because just about every other scene plays out like a television movie.

The casting directors made good choices in employing Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones to play the paranormal investigators. Each of them has a big but specific personality that brings something special to the table even though the script is not quite up to the level of its performers’ talents.

Particularly joyful to watch is McKinnon, a real scene-stealer. Notice that even when she is not saying anything but just so happens to be in the frame as her co-stars, our eyes tend to gravitate toward her—whether it is due to the way she stands, how she contorts her face, the manner in which she controls her eyes. This is called presence and it is invaluable. Another ray of light, but in a different way, is Jones. She has the more thunderous lines but she sells them with one hundred percent effort with enthusiasm left to spare. I enjoyed how her character is written as a historian compared to her more science-minded counterparts.

Allowing the special and visual effects to take over the final third is a grave misstep. The images look too playful, silly, non-threatening. In the filmmakers’ attempt to become family-friendly, it has forgotten to take risks with its imagery. Compounded with the fact that the stunts are too jokey to the point where we can almost see the wires lifting the actors as the characters are attacked by ghosts in Times Square, what results is a frustrating lack of suspense. There is no tension in our heroines’ confrontation with the neon-animated spirits. Twenty minutes of action unfolds but we end up not caring at all. Clearly, the picture does not qualify as a thrilling action-fantasy picture.

Neither does it qualify as a strong comedy with interesting characters. While the Ghostbusters share a sense of camaraderie, there are numerous ad-libbed lines, particularly from McCarthy, that ought to have been left on the cutting room floor. They stand out like sore thumbs because they are usually out of context. In addition, some of the dialogue, especially those between Erin (Wiig) and Abby (McCarthy) which touch upon how they have grown apart over the years so their reunion—though friendly—is a bit awkward, barely commands realism. It might have been more interesting if the writers, Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, had allowed the two to engage in some sort of friction and then slowly build toward mending their friendship. Give them a reason to work together even though they do not want to be around one another. Instead, everyone must be likable from the get-go. This is a recipe for boredom.

Directed by Paul Feig, “Ghostbusters” wants to have fun, and there are amusing elements here such as Chris Hemsworth playing a handsome but hopelessly dimwitted assistant, but those involved behind the camera seem to forget that there is value in work that is rough around the edges. This is why the original was such a success and is beloved by many. This work, on the other hand, is pristine, neatly-packaged, and just about everything is too controlled and polished. It fails to embody the spirit of its inspiration. And we see right through its mask.


Spy (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

With her mentor killed in action and the rest of the CIA’s active agents’ identities compromised, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a computer analyst, volunteers to go on a field assignment to track a nuclear weapons buyer (Bobby Cannavale) and report directly to her superior (Allison Janney)—emphasis on track and report. But once actually in the field, starting in Paris, circumstances compel Susan to engage in more than what she has been assigned. Susan’s best friend at work, Nancy (Miranda Hart), backs her up through her mission via an earpiece.

Written and directed by Paul Feig, “Spy” is infectious fun because of its energy, a willingness to take risks both on a physical comedy level and witty banters, and the action offers fresh surprises missing too often in action-comedies. But perhaps what I enjoyed most about the picture is that the script does not rely solely on fat jokes to be funny. Every character is the butt of a joke at one point or another whether it be in terms of their looks, personality, or position of power. It is a comedy with a good spirit.

McCarthy proves once again that she is a star—not a chameleon but a performer who commands powerful magnetism when she is on screen. Her character is required to wear the most ridiculous disguises but McCarthy’s personality and inner-light is so strong, she does not get lost in the unflattering wig and hideous clothes. This is a story of a likable underdog who is underestimated at times because of the way she looks. And yet there is no lesson in the end about loving oneself or something cheesy like that. McCarthy makes the story, even though it is a spy comedy, more grounded, relatable.

Although the material offers a consistent ebb and flow of action and comedy, it does run a little long. The last few scenes, once the twist is revealed, are not as interesting even though the material is still able to deliver a forward momentum. I suppose the whole situation involving a deal going awry during the final act has been done so many times that maybe removing it altogether would have been the best decision. Still, even though the final fifteen minutes offers nothing new, it is watchable and has a few jokes worth sitting through.

In terms of standout supporting performances, it is a toss-up between Jason Statham, playing a very enthusiastic spy (to say the least), and Rose Byrne, portraying a femme fatale with the hopes of selling nuclear weapons. Statham is so intense that it feels as though his character came from a completely different movie—maybe from a pure action flick or a high-end action-thriller. Just about every moment he is on screen, he is making fun of his previous roles involving men with a certain talent for violence and a knack for extrication from trickiest situations. Byrne, on the other hand, is beautiful, as expected, but she has a lot of fun with the role. She oozes sex appeal but mixed with a bit of menace. When her character signals her bodyguards to punish those who have wronged her, it can be chilling especially when the violence happens off-screen.

“Spy” does not change the landscape of action-comedies in any way, but it does offer a good time. Although the template is composed of standard material we expect from the sub-genre, there is enough inspiration here that delivers creativity and intelligence, coupled with amusing performances across the board without the screenplay necessarily relying only on caricatures to make the gags work.

The Heat

The Heat (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a good FBI agent based off New York City. She knows how bad guys think so she is able to close a case quickly and then she is onto the next one. Despite her talent, she does not have the respect of her colleagues. They think she is a bit of a know-it-all, arrogant, and quite unpleasant to be around. But Ashburn wants a promotion. In order for her to get it, she must go to Boston and capture a drug lord. Enter Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), a very aggressive—some might say out of control—cop in the Boston Police Department, with whom Ashburn must learn to work with to get the chance to further her career.

During the majority of its running time, “The Heat” is seemingly unstoppable. Just about every scene is laugh-out-loud funny, the performers are game to say and do whatever is necessary to get at least a chuckle from the audience, the director, Paul Feig, is behind the camera, completely matching the verve and dynamism of McCarthy and Bullock. However, once the final quarter comes around, the material is significantly less consistent—like it has run out of energy. The clichés many of us have grown blind to in the first hour or so become more noticeable and they take away some of the fun.

Without Bullock and McCarthy’s willingness to make fun of themselves, the picture might have turned out to be a complete mess. The two performers are put into work physically—running, crawling, rolling—and combined with a relatively sharp script, it works wonderfully. We observe what the duo can do with the physical space they are provided while maintaining the energy they exert in their bodies through the requisite line deliveries—often a mouthful, profanity-laden, and requiring perfect timing. We want to laugh because we get the feeling that the actors are laughing are themselves, too.

It is at its funniest when Ashburn and Mullins are on each other’s throats. The idea to have two completely opposite personalities and have them work together is nothing new, but there are enough jokes, wit, and exaggeration to create an illusion that what it is working with is fresh. Conversely, it is also very amusing when the women of the law are on the same page and are out to get someone else—whether it be a suspect or competing agents (Dan Bakkedahl, Taran Killam).

Less entertaining are scenes that involve obvious bonding moments. Particularly painful, embarrassing, and awkward to sit through is watching Mullins and Ashburn having drinks in a bar and getting in all sorts of “crazy” and “funny” drunk situations—in quotations because such images come off more desperate than mildly humorous. While understandable that the polar opposites must form a relationship, the bar scene—and others like it—is not necessary; the relationship is forged through the investigation, the catty quips, and how they look at one another when one is hurt on a deeper level, whether it be on the job, around family, or just hanging out at one’s apartment.

Written by Katie Dippold, “The Heat” might have benefited from having a shorter running time. The work is lopsided in that the most effective jokes are found in the first hour. While there are a few good scenes in the latter half, there is more padding which can be felt through a much slower pacing. Nevertheless, the film offers a good time because it oozes positivity, as its type of comedy should, every step of the way.

Identity Thief

Identity Thief (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) receives a call from a woman (Melissa McCarthy) who claims to be from fraud detection. Offering free services to protect his identity, Sandy gives the caller his full name, date of birth, and social security number. Before the guy knows it, his credit card is maxed out and there is a warrant for his arrest. Meanwhile, Diana has a ball shopping for clothes, buying a car, and getting her hair done. The authorities are aware that Sandy’s identity has been stolen, but they are unable to arrest the perpetrator given that she lives across the country. Sandy has a plan: in a span of a week, somehow he will persuade Diana to come with him to Colorado and trick her into confessing her crimes while the cops eavesdrop.

It is a shame that “Identity Thief,” based on the screenplay by Craig Mazin and directed by Seth Gordon, is made all the more complicated by introducing gangsters (T.I., Genesis Rodriguez) and a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick) into the mix when it should have been clean and to the point: two people who cannot stand each other driving across America and learning a little bit about each other. By introducing unnecessary action sequences, what is communicated is the writer’s lack of confidence to his material. Or perhaps it is the writer’s intention to make the script more appealing to the audience. Whichever the case, it holds back a movie that should have been better than the final product.

Prior to the introduction of the threat of violence, the comedy is consistently entertaining. I enjoyed watching Sandy being so blissfully oblivious of the fact that someone has been using his name and causing all sorts of trouble in Florida. Sandy going on shopping sprees, carrying least five bags in one hand, are equally funny. Bateman and McCarthy have something in common: they can stand in one spot doing nothing and I want to laugh.

Casting two leads who possess effortless charm is smart. One plays a pushover and the other plays a parasite. Their comedic styles are opposite. Bateman downplays the humor in his character: Sandy’s personality is sarcastic but he is almost shy about it, concerned about stepping on someone’s toes. McCarthy, on the other hand, makes a fiesta out of everything, from physical gags to obnoxious lines: Diana is big and colorful but, like so many people who are constantly in-your-face, maybe it is a way of hiding something that is painful. I had fun with their chemistry.

The people on the hunt for Diana and Sandy are played straight, almost boring. When the picture cuts to them, I wanted to get up and get a glass of water. They are written so flavorless, so devoid of humor that they could have been taken from any action picture. You know, the henchmen who would probably have been shot by the hero within the first five minutes. Wouldn’t it have been great, for instance, if the pair of gangsters were allowed to be as funny as the protagonists? That way, when the camera is on them, the story will not feel like it drags. T.I. and Rodriguez are not to blame. Rather, they are not given a script they can work with and creative direction to really make their characters pop.

And how about those car chases? They are poorly choreographed. I can watch children playing with their toy cars and observe more creativity. Are the car crashes supposed to be exciting? Funny? No, I think they are simply there to eat time.

I liked “Identity Thief,” but only the parts where Bateman and McCarthy are in it: their characters just talking, hitting each other with guitars, and pulling each other’s hair. What the screenplay fails to understand is that the best comedies, especially those that involve a road trip, are simple. Instead, we are presented a bloated, tired thing.

Life as We Know It

Life as We Know It (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Eric (Josh Duhamel), complete strangers to one another, were supposed to go out for dinner because their married best friends thought they would get along swimmingly. But they called it quits before they even reached the restaurant. Holly thought Eric was a child trapped in a handsome man’s body, while Eric thought Holly was a pretty but uptight blonde who had no idea how to let her hair down for a change. But when their best friends died in a car accident, they were named as one-year-old Sophie’s guardians. Holly and Eric had to try to put their differences aside to take care of the baby. “Life as We Know It,” written by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson, were labeled by some critics as emotionally bankrupt because it used death as a source of commercial comedy. I’d have to disagree; plenty of films out there, especially dark comedies, have used the same topic and they received critical acclaim. I say why not as long as the film retained a certain level of respect. The movie didn’t feel malicious toward its subjects. The characters may have felt more like caricatures at times but, in general, it had a bona fide sense of humor. I just wish it had stayed away from too many gross-out humor involving vomit and changing diapers. Two or three of those scenes were more than enough but we were given about seven. The heart of the picture was Holly and Eric’s strained relationship. They tolerated each other but they obviously didn’t like each other. They were so used to having their way because they were single. The only thing they had to focus on was their career. Holly ran a business as a caterer (typically feminine) and Eric worked behind the scenes in a sports network (typically masculine). The story was most interesting when it focused on how they tried to change themselves and each other as they hoped to raise a healthy child. They had to break their typical feminine and masculine roles in order to be well-rounded parents. Their various approaches to parenting were rarely perfect–certain decisions were downright stupid like Eric leaving a baby to a cab driver just so he could go to work–but that was what made them charming. Through trial-and-error, they learned from their mistakes. Another source of conflict was the romance between Sam (Josh Lucas) and Holly. They should have had more scenes together instead of the unfunny scenes with the colorful neighbors (Melissa McCarthy) and the nosy Child Protection Services agent (Sarah Burns). We saw that they cared for each other but their situation was far from optimum. Holly was in a critical state of transition while Sam was ready to settle down. I was glad there wasn’t a typical rivalry between the two men in Holly’s life. “Life as We Know It,” directed by Greg Berlanti, had good elements but it was ultimately weighed down by too many slapstick humor and heavy-handed metaphor such as Holly’s business expansion reflecting Holly, Eric, and Sophie’s life at home. It could have been stronger if the writers eliminated comfortable but unnecessary clichés and taken more risks.


Bridesmaids (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When Annie (Kristen Wiig) was informed by Lillian (Maya Rudolph), her BFF, that she was getting married, Annie was very happy for her friend yet she was reminded of her own failures. The list included her business venture involving a bakery that went under because of the recession and the fact that she was far from being in a stable romantic relationship. She thought the best she could do was to be in a no strings attached relationship with a womanizer (Jon Hamm) who drove a fancy car and was brazen enough to criticize her teeth. Upon hearing the news, the lingering moment when we noticed her genuine happiness change into critical self-evaluation was “Bridesmaids,” written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, at its best. It wasn’t just a comedy about a wedding but it was about the people that made the celebration stressful and special. When Lillian introduced Annie to little-miss-perfect Helen (Rose Byrne), Annie felt threatened. Helen was rich, men noticed her when she entered a room, and had a natural elegance in the way she carried herself. Annie was just none of those things. One of the most memorable scenes, gloriously awkward and laugh-out-loud funny, involved Annie and Helen attempting to deliver the best toast. The way they snatched the microphone out of each other’s iron grip defined their relationship. As audiences so used to seeing the maid of honor and her rival in more generic and spineless comedies, we expected Annie and Helen to eventually deliver a punch (or purposefully dig one’s stiletto in another’s foot) as the scene went on. But they never did. Part of the joy of watching them together was experiencing the uncomfortable and unbearable tension, their passive-aggressiveness, their willingness to prove that, for Annie, Lillian chose the right friend to be the maid of honor and, for Helen, that she was the more practical choice because she had a talent for micromanagement and the fact that she had connections. The other hilarious bridesmaids were Melissa McCarthy, unapologetically profane and we love her for it, Wendi McLendon-Covey, the extremely unhappy mother of three boys, and Ellie Kemper, bored of her life because everything was rooted in being safe. The unhappiness of these women were relatable, engaging, and ultimately touching. But “Bridesmaids” had its share of gross-out humor. I’m particularly difficult to impress with scenes involving bodily functions but I actually enjoyed those moments. It worked because the material was already very funny. The over-the-top gags were simply icing on the wedding cake (or should I say wedding dress?). Directed by Paul Feig, “Bridesmaids,” character-driven, calculated shots but effortless delivery, and appealing to both women and men, is a rarity in mainstream comedy.