Posts Tagged ‘Marielle Heller’

Cultural hegemony can take many forms, not all of them obviously malevolent: it’s there in singers affecting the accent of the hegemon rather than their own, in the hope of getting more air-play on hegemonic radio; it’s there in TV series casting foreign actors, again to improve their chances of sales in lucrative markets abroad. It’s there in the language that we use: I’m sure many British people talk casually of ‘taking the Fifth’ or ‘stepping up to the plate’ even though they have virtually no idea what these expressions originally referred to.

Doesn’t work the other way, of course: if I talked about being on a sticky wicket in Lowman, Idaho, I imagine I would just get stared at, and if I had the presumption to try and release a film about the life of John Noakes or Johnny Morris in the USA I would probably be referred for psychiatric examination. But hegemony is hegemony, which is why UK cinemas are currently screening Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. (The analogy in the middle of this paragraph almost breaks down when you consider that many stalwart British children’s TV presenters from years ago are now disgraced to the point of being outright pariahs. But I digress.)

The movie is set in 1998 and concerns Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a brilliant investigative journalist working for Esquire magazine, whose talents are increasingly failing to the mask the fact that he is contending with his own bitterness and cynicism – almost to the point of misanthropy. Lloyd doesn’t really see the problem, but his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) certainly does, especially after a trip to a family wedding goes very badly – this is probably an understatement, considering the occasion concludes with Vogel getting into a fistfight with his own father (Chris Cooper) and being thrown out.

Lloyd is less than thrilled, all things considered, to be given the assignment of writing for an issue on contemporary American heroes – especially given that he is told to go and interview Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), a children’s TV presenter based in Pittsburgh.

(Here, of course, we come across one of those cultural and national faultlines which almost seem invisible until they become important. Fred Rogers is virtually unknown outside of the United States: his programme, Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, was never shown over here, and prior to this movie I was only dimly aware of him, mainly because the show did a set visit to The Incredible Hulk in 1979 and that segment is up on YouTube. In short, Fred Rogers is a beloved icon to generations of Americans who remember him fondly from childhood; there isn’t really a comparable figure in British culture – only adult entertainers like Ronnie Barker or Eric Morecambe come close, I would imagine.)

Well, Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh to interview Fred, and finds himself nonplussed by the sheer sweetness, gentle kindness, and utter decency of his subject. Can this guy really be genuine? Every instinct tells him that it can’t be the case, and his mission becomes to uncover the truth about Fred Rogers. But what if the truth is what it seems to be? All this time, as well, Lloyd is still contending with his fraught relationship with his father and his feelings of resentment towards him after he walked out on the family. But the benign influence of Fred Rogers seems to be having an effect on him…

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has only secured a relatively minor release in the UK, probably because it will prove somewhat baffling to the average British viewer: the film is initially staged as an episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, as Hanks comes on, delivers the opening routine, and then introduces Lloyd and his situation as if it’s an item on the programme (one made for very young children, I should mention). If you or your children grew up watching Fred Rogers, I imagine this is terribly resonant, funny and charming; the same can be said for the way that some of the transitions in the movie are executed using models in the style of those on the show. For anyone else it is just a bit weird and slightly Charlie Kaufman-esque: like a joke you’re not quite in on. This never quite stops being an issue with the movie.

Of course, the main reason this film isn’t just playing in art-houses is that it does feature one of Hollywood’s finest actors and biggest stars in a key role. Tom Hanks, if we’re honest, doesn’t look much like Fred Rogers, even with the wig and so on he’s been issued with, and obviously my own ability to judge how well he’s captured Rogers’ demeanour is very limited. However, given that one of the premises of the movie is that Fred Rogers was – and the word is used – a kind of saint, then he is hugely successful. There is obviously a thin line between radiating the kind of decency, sincerity and compassion which Rogers apparently did and just coming across as absurdly cheesy, but Hanks mostly stays on the right side of it. (The modern world being what it is, there have been complaints that while Rogers’ achievements as a host, educator, puppeteer, and author of books such as Going to the Potty are made clear, the fact he was also a minister and a man of deep religious faith is rather understated.)

I should also say that Matthew Rhys is very good in what’s a much less showy part. His character arc for the movie is not the most original, but Rhys’ performance and a charming script do make this a very satisfying and enjoyable drama, even if you disregard the fact it is largely framed in the context of a children’s TV show you may or may not have any awareness of. Hollywood’s fondness for doing stories about people contending with father issues has become a bit of a standing joke – one wonders what this says about the pathology of the place – but this is a superior one.

The only slightly disappointing thing is that this is billed at the start as being (all together now) ‘Inspired by true events’, but at the end it is revealed that the magazine article on Fred Rogers was written by Tom Junod: it would seem that Lloyd Vogel, his family, and his story are all essentially fictitious, created for the purposes of a film about what a great man Fred Rogers was. I’ve written about this kind of thing before recently: once you start mixing ‘real’ people and fictional characters together in this way, the question of what exactly it is you’re doing becomes a pressing one. You’re either telling a true story or you’re not. I’m sure Fred Rogers was every bit as inspirational a figure as he is presented here: but if so, why not just stick to the facts? If he wasn’t, then why fictionalise the story?

But this is a more general point about the whole genre of films to which this belongs. I thought this was a very warm, charming and satisfying drama, rather more to my taste than Heller’s last film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? The performances and structure are more than good enough to make up for the fact that the film seems to be presuming a familiarity with Mr Rogers and his neighbourhood which simply won’t exist for many viewers. Certainly one of the better films of the year so far.

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The official photo of the nominees for the 2019 Academy Awards was published the other day, and I for one was quite pleased to see that not all the participants appeared to be taking it entirely seriously. But then again, I realised years ago that taking the Academy Awards seriously is a mug’s game – the whole circus is basically an articulation of pompous Hollywood self-regard, made somewhat risible by too many issues to be easily enumerated. Not that they necessarily do themselves many favours at AMPAS – the whole ‘Best Popular Movie’ debacle basically shone a spotlight on the awkwardly competing desires to be both populist and refined. It’s an impossible circle to square, demanding the Academy to make many tough choices year after year, most of which they arguably get wrong.

Still, winning an Oscar does provide a quantifiable boost in a film’s take – how many people only went to see Moonlight after it picked up a statuette? I was one of them- and also, one presumes, in the asking price of any actor lucky enough to acquire one. (It must be rather frustrating that so many acting Oscars are the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, given to people for their body of work rather than any particular role, and only acquired when the performer’s career is beginning to wind down anyway.) Am I suggesting that film stars are quite so acquisitive and venal as that makes them sound? Well – maybe, I don’t know. What I am sure of is that if you really do want an Oscar, there are a few tried-and-tested routes to picking one up. Famously, if you are a man, you should play someone with a medical condition, and if you are a woman, you should play the least glamorous role you can find.

Both these things are kind of true of Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which has picked up a raft of award nominations, not just at the Oscars. Most these have gone to its leads, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant.  This is yet another supposedly true story, concerning the activities of the New York-based writer Lee Israel (played by McCarthy). Israel was, briefly, a successful writer of biographies, but as the film opens her unpromising choice of subject matter and the fact that she is basically a horrible person to everyone around her means she is not so much a failed writer as one on the verge of failing – isolated, heavily in debt, and drinking too much. The closest thing she has to a friend is Jack Hock (Grant), a similarly dubious character.

To raise money to make ends meet, Israel resorts to selling some personal effects, including a letter from Katharine Hepburn, and discovers the high prices that such memorabilia can command. The price is even better, she realises, when she makes a few small amendments to the letters herself to make them more appealing to the collectors interested in such things. From here it is but a short step to Israel forging literary memorabilia as her main source of incoming, producing hitherto-unknown works from the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Louise Brooks. After a while, it becomes necessary for her to recruit Jack as her representative when doing the actual selling, simply because the dealers are growing too suspicious of her. This inevitably places further strain on what was a somewhat fragile relationship anyway, and with the FBI closing in, how long can they keep on getting away with it?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (a phrase given to Dorothy Parker in one of Israel’s fake letters supposedly written by her) is a curious film, not necessarily because of the story but because of a slight unevenness of style. On one level, it deals with some fairly serious and even quite abstract concerns – loneliness, isolation, what it means to be a good or successful writer, and above all else the notion of ‘authenticity’ and what it really means. Israel’s forged letters when writing as Coward and the others are so successful because they are more entertaining and characterful than the genuine ones – the film is big on the notion of forgery as a creative act, in this case at least – and there is a suggestion that at least some of the people involved chose not to look too closely, at least to begin with. And the tone of the film is often appropriately understated and naturalistic, with the kind of score (contributed by the director’s brother) that suggests a serious drama.

On the other hand, this is still kind of a film about various criminal capers, where the victims were basically gullible rich people who didn’t really know they were being robbed, and the audience is to some extent invited to feel complicit in Lee and Jack’s success and share it with them. Melissa McCarthy is one of those innately funny performers who could probably raise a laugh playing Hedda Gabler, and her instincts allow her to zero in on every even marginally funny moment in the script and milk it for all it’s worth. (On the other hand, there are moments in the film which almost come across as unintentionally funny, but this may have more to do with a low-quality stuffed cat employed as a prop at one point.) On the whole this is a very strong performance, but it mostly consists of McCarthy being sharp, abrasive and witty, which is essentially what she does in most of her movies anyway. As I said, actresses wanting an Oscar are wise to de-glam themselves (see Halle Berre in Monster’s Ball, Charlize Theron in Monster, and so on), and McCarthy certainly does that here – is it too harsh to suggest that her nomination is due more to an unflattering wig than any revelation about her acting ability?

I must admit to being rather more surprised about Richard E Grant getting the Academy nod for this film. That said, I’ve never been particularly impressed by Grant’s range – it always seems to me that the abiding tragedy of his career was that he was born about ten years too late to be an original cast member on The Rocky Horror Show. All his performances seem to me to be essentially the same, including here. Various scenes of domestic squalour, overindulgence of alcohol, and strained friendship inevitably put one in mind of Withnail & I (still really Grant’s signature role). It’s a funny turn, with perhaps a smidgeon more depth to it than usual, but still hardly anything really new.

Still, it would take a bigger churl than me not to be somewhat disarmed, not to mention amused, by Grant’s obvious delight at getting his Oscar nomination; no doubt Marvel will soon be on the phone to him, as well. As far as Can You Ever Forgive Me? is concerned, this is an enjoyable and engaging film which (perhaps inevitably) works better in its lighter moments than its more dramatic ones. It is a curious tale, well told, with two strong if not exceptional performances at its heart. Probably worth watching if you like thoughtful, quality films in a minor key.

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