McCarthy pulls off against-type turn as misanthropic con-woman

Can You Ever Forgive Me
Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

By Richard Ades

Lee Israel’s abrasive and self-destructive personality is established in the first scene of Can You Ever Forgive Me? While working a late-night job, Lee (Melissa McCarthy) hits the wrong person with an F-bomb and is immediately fired.

This launches a downward spiral that threatens to expel Lee from the New York apartment she shares with her ailing cat. The spiral ends only when it’s replaced by a moral and legal spin out of control.

The fateful catalyst is a letter from a famous author that falls into Lee’s hands. Attempting to sell it to a dealer in literary ephemera, she’s told it would be worth more if only the subject matter weren’t so bland. An author herself—though one who has trouble even giving her latest books away—Lee seizes on the idea of manufacturing spicy correspondence supposedly written by luminaries such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward.

Her success in this dishonest new venture is ironic. After being told by her agent (Jane Curtin) that she won’t attract readers until she finds her own literary voice, Lee learns she can pull in big bucks by aping other writers’ voices.

Directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and based on the real-life Israel’s story, Can You Ever Forgive Me? gives McCarthy the chance to prove she has something to offer beyond her usual comic shtick. She doesn’t slough off the opportunity. Other than a brief scene near the end, McCarthy totally immerses herself in the skin of a woman who is not above lying and cheating others, yet is still her own worst enemy.

Though officially a lesbian, Lee is so leery of human interaction that she undermines every relationship or potential relationship. When a bookseller and would-be author (Dolly Wells) shows obvious interest in getting to know her, she responds with caution and defensiveness. We can’t admire Lee, but McCarthy’s portrayal makes it impossible not to feel for her. Her performance is by turns funny and touching.

If McCarthy’s portrayal is impressive for its depth and deviation from her usual output, co-star Richard E. Grant’s performance is memorable for its bravura spirit. Grant plays Jack Hock, an aging loner who seems to get through life on the strength of his wit and wits. After meeting in a gay bar, Jack and Lee are drawn together by their mutual fear of commitment and love of nasty pranks and alcohol. Though they obviously aren’t good for each other, they become inseparable.

Through all this, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay moves nimbly between acid humor and pathos. But it’s McCarthy’s sensitive performance and Heller’s equally sensitive direction that make it possible to care about Israel because we can see her moral compass is defective but not entirely beyond repair.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (rated R) opens Nov. 8 at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, Marcus Crosswoods Cinema and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

Musical moments outshine remake’s tragic love story

A STAR IS BORN
Ally (Lady Gaga) and Jackson (Bradley Cooper) share a stage for the first time in A Star Is Born. (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

By Richard Ades

A Star Is Born has been made and remade so often, it must hit a chord with the American psyche. Either that, or it’s such a perfect star vehicle that Hollywood just can’t let it gather dust for long.

Whether it’s set in the movie industry (like the 1937 and 1954 versions) or the music industry (like the 1976 and current 2018 iterations), the tale centers on a couple who fall in love while her career is rising and his is drowning in a pool of alcohol. The result is a potent mix of drama, romance, histrionics and (in most versions) music, giving both of its stars a chance to shine.

Certainly Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga shine brightly in the current remake, which Cooper also co-wrote, produced and directed. The beginning is a particular joy.

The first scene throws us into the middle of a country-rock concert in which singer-songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) holds forth to the adoration of his fans. Afterward, in desperate need of a drink, he instructs his driver to drop him off at what turns out to be a drag bar. It’s there he first hears and marvels at the vocal talents of Ally (Gaga), the only woman in the night’s lineup.

Having recently broken up with an insensitive boyfriend, Ally is at first reluctant when Jackson introduces himself and insists on getting to know both her and her music. But, encouraged by a co-worker (Anthony Ramos) and her supportive father (Andrew Dice Clay)—who thinks the attentions of a rock star would help get her own singing career off the ground—she eventually gives in. She accepts Jackson’s invitation to an out-of-town gig, where he unexpectedly prods her into joining him in a rendition of one of her own songs. The resulting duet is one of the most powerful musical moments in recent cinematic history.

So far, so good. Cooper is likably humble as Jackson, while Gaga offers an appealing portrayal of the self-doubting Ally and puts her powerful singing voice on full display without ever succumbing to melodramatic overkill. As a director, Cooper also proves to be competent, allowing not only him and Gaga but co-stars like Sam Elliott and Dave Chappelle a chance to make their mark.

It’s only after the story begins down its preordained path toward tragedy that it loses some of its potency. Possible reasons:

1) A major part of the story is Jackson’s decline from popularity, but the singer seems to put on a good show no matter how drugged or boozed up he is. Why, exactly, are his fans turning against him?

2) Jackson urges Ally to remain true to herself rather than letting fame change her. Yet when she allows her agent, Rez (Rafi Gavron), to turn her into a glitzy singer of shallow anthems, he says nothing. It thus becomes unclear whether their growing relationship problems are due to Jackson’s jealousy over her success or his disappointment over how she achieved it. (The situation also raises the question of whether the movie downplays the issue of Ally’s selling out to avoid biting the hand of the industry that feeds Lady Gaga in real life.)

The upshot of these weaknesses is that the tale’s tragic ending seems less organic and inevitable than it should. It’s certainly less organic and inevitable than it was in 1954’s blockbuster remake, which also benefited from Judy Garland’s best-ever performance as a rising movie star and James Mason’s depiction of the fading matinee idol who becomes her mentor.

As a tale of blossoming romance, the latest version of A Star Is Born strikes gold. As a musical, it strikes platinum. It’s only when the flick reaches for tragedy that it fails to find the mother lode.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

A Star Is Born (rated R) opens Oct. 5 in theaters nationwide.

Is beauty in the eye of the self-beholder?

Amy Schumer stars in I FEEL PRETTY
Renee (Amy Schumer), who has just bumped her head in a gym-related accident, can’t believe how good she suddenly looks in I Feel Pretty. (Photos by Mark Schafer/Courtesy of STX Financing LLC)

By Richard Ades

Just hours before attending a preview screening of I Feel Pretty, I happened to be riding a stationary bike at my gym when the nearest TV showed Amy Schumer plugging the flick on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

DeGeneres praised the comedy, as you might expect, but she had especially kind words for the Schumer character’s final speech. She hinted that the consciousness-raising moment is the best part of the film.

Judging from the early reviews, many agree that I Feel Pretty has an important message, but they also seem to feel it undermines that message in a way that’s clumsy at best, unconscionable at worst. So when I say I actually enjoyed the flick, maybe I need to stress that I did not fall off that stationary bike and hit my head before seeing it.

Written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein—and engagingly performed by Schumer and the rest of the cast—the comedy takes on society’s obsession with physical perfection and the damaging effects it has on the self-esteem of women and girls.

Schumer plays Renee Bennett, who worships beautiful people and thinks her life would improve if only she were one of them. Then she falls off a stationary bike at the gym and hits her head, only to pick herself up and realize she’s suddenly become drop-dead gorgeous. But, of course, it’s all in her shock-addled imagination. To everyone else, she’s the same average-looking woman she always was.

Well, not quite the same. Because Renee is convinced she’s exceptional, she begins radiating the kind of self-confidence that convinces other people she’s exceptional. Due to this new attitude—along with a fair amount of fortuitous timing—she begins turning her loveless, unsatisfying life around. Not only does she pursue romance, but she makes a play for a glamorous job in the headquarters of the cosmetics firm that previously has confined her to a grungy online-sales office.

Amy Schumer and Rory Scovel star in I FEEL PRETTY
Renee (Amy Schumer) and Ethan (Rory Scovel) get to know each other.

A film with a feminist message risks alienating half its audience, especially if it turns its male characters into the bad guys. I Feel Pretty avoids this by depicting its men as more enlightened than all too many of their real-life counterparts. As in 2015’s Trainwreck, Schumer’s love interest is a nice and decidedly un-macho guy, Ethan (Rory Scovel), and even the wealthy hunk Renee meets at her company’s HQ (Tom Hopper) is able to appreciate her for who she is.

The film also avoids creating female villains. Instead of turning its conventionally beautiful women into Renee’s adversaries, it shows that even they can find reasons to doubt themselves. Thus, cosmetics exec Avery (Michelle Williams) hates her baby-like voice, while toned model Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski) worries that people question her intelligence.

In the process of attacking society’s obsession with perfection, I Feel Pretty hardly achieves perfection itself. When Renee’s new success threatens to drive a wedge between her and longtime friends Vivian and Jane (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps), it comes off as a cliché stolen from countless high school dramas. More damagingly, it could be argued that the film’s message of empowerment is achieved by discounting the real-world prejudices faced by those who fall short of physical ideals.

Still, the comedy inspires plenty of laughs, especially for those who appreciate Schumer’s raunchy sense of humor. At the same time, it may well inspire new hope and confidence in anyone who’s ever suffered from low self-esteem. As the film points out, that includes just about all of us.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

I Feel Pretty (rated PG-13) opens Friday (April 20) at theaters nationwide.

White high schoolers on a quest to hear black jazz icon

Flock of Four

By Richard Ades

La La Land was pelted with jokes galore for its alleged depiction of a white man who wanted to “save” jazz. Personally, I thought the attacks were unfair. The way I saw it, Ryan Gosling’s character was simply a white musician who idolized and was inspired by black jazz icons.

So why do I have such an uncomfortable feeling watching Flock of Four, the story of a white high school student who idolizes and is inspired by a black jazz icon? Maybe because the modest little film tries to tackle the issues of race and cultural appropriation head on, and it does it in a way that’s sometimes awkwardly self-conscious and embarrassingly naïve.

Directed and co-written by Gregory Caruso, Flock of Four partially makes up for this shortcoming by taking us on a pleasant journey through a pivotal era in Southern California’s musical history.

Joe Grover (Braeden Lemasters) is a Pasadena teen who learned jazz piano from his late father and now leads three classmates in a quartet that specializes in the genre even though their contemporaries prefer rock ’n’ roll. One night in 1959, Joe learns that Pope Dixon (Reg E. Cathey), a jazz veteran his father worshipped, is playing at a club on Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

Joe has never been to Central Avenue, a fading jazz mecca in a scruffy black neighborhood, and he’s nervous about how safe or welcome he would be there. Still, he’s more afraid that this could be his last chance to hear the aging musician. Setting aside his fears—and dodging his protective older brother, Sam (Shane Harper)—he herds his bandmates into a cab and sets out for L.A.

This begins a long night of making and discussing music, meeting new friends and losing old friends, all while searching for a musician who always seems to be just out of reach.

After arriving at the club only to learn that Dixon has already left, Joe encounters Ava Moore (Coco James), a black singer with a friendly smile and a decidedly unfriendly brother, Clifford (Nadji Jeter). Following her gorgeous rendition of “Misty,” Joe and bass player Bud (Isaac Jay) introduce themselves and quickly learn that Clifford has little use for either them or for Dixon, whose upbeat music he equates with the long-ago era of demeaning minstrel shows.

More race-related discussions follow, culminating in a moment when Joe basically asks if someone like him, a white kid from Pasadena, has had enough pain in his life to play jazz. It seems like an odd question, considering how devoted he is to the genre he inherited from his dad. At any rate, the answer he receives is both reassuring and disappointing.

Beyond its awkward moments, Flock of Four is a satisfying tribute to the smoky jazz clubs that once graced the entertainment scene in L.A. and across the country. It may not be dramatically powerful, but it’s likably nostalgic and historically interesting. And, as a bonus, the music is great.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Flock of Four (unrated) opens Friday (April 13) at AMC Easton Town Center 30 in Columbus.

Animated pooches must heel to director’s quirky proclivities

Isle-of-Dogs-2
Atari (Koyu Rankin) and canine friends seek his lost guard dog in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

By Richard Ades

An orphaned boy risks his life to search for his missing dog. It sounds like the makings of a heart-warming, tear-jerking crowd-pleaser.

That is, unless the director is the relentlessly eccentric Wes Anderson. Then, you can expect a tale filled with the kind of quirky, jokey elements that leave fans metaphorically wagging their tails and others scratching their heads.

Isle of Dogs, like Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), is a stop-motion animation flick. This is its greatest strength, as the images are elaborate and eye-catching. But it may also be one of the film’s greatest weaknesses, as the faces of the painstakingly created characters show little emotion, making it hard to relate to their travails. Adding to the problem, their travails are constantly being interrupted by flashbacks and other digressions built into the script by Anderson and his team of co-writers.

The beginning moments lay out the fanciful back story: Centuries ago, the leader of Japan’s cat-loving Kobayashi clan was beheaded by a youthful member of a competing clan of dog lovers. Skipping ahead to the present-day city of Megasaki, we learn that Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has ordered all dogs banished to the garbage-strewn Trash Island. He claims he wants to protect the populace from a plague of canine “snout fever,” but we suspect he’s really motivated by revenge and his family’s age-old hatred of dogs.

The first to make the involuntary trip is Spots (Liev Schrieber), guard dog of the mayor’s 12-year-old nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin). Others follow, and the island is soon teeming with a mixture of strays such as Chief (Bryan Cranston) and former pets such as the quartet of dogs (Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray) who adopt him as their leader.

When Atari steals a plane and crash-lands it on the island while searching for his beloved Spots, the four ex-pets are eager to help the injured boy. Chief initially objects, having nothing but contempt for the bond between humans and dogs, but he eventually agrees to aid the boy in his dangerous quest.

Obviously, a raft of well-known actors contributed their voices to the animated tale, including Greta Gerwig as mud-raking exchange student Tracy Walker. It’s a sign of how little the individual characters stand out that only one actor is instantly recognizable: Scarlett Johansson as one-time show dog Nutmeg. For the most part, the characters come across as mere cogs in a busy plot that incorporates sumo wrestlers, conspiracies, robotic dogs and genocidal attacks.

Told in English and Japanese—spoken by the dogs and people, respectively—Isle of Dogs has its share of humor. Some of it is likely to be most appreciated by Anderson devotees, while other jokes are accessible to all. (All adults, that is, as the film is not really aimed at kids.) Along with the clever plot and amazing images, they help to make up for the stretches of film that fall short of their potential.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Isle of Dogs (PG-13) opened April 5 at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, AMC Lennox Town Center 24 and Marcus Crossroads Cinema