Going Small

‘Wildlife’ & ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’
Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildlife

It has been a big year for the movies, and the record-breaking domestic gate receipts, which have hit $12 billion, reflect the bigness of the movies themselves. Consider 2018’s top five box-office winners: Black Panther; Avengers: Infinity War; The Incredibles 2; Jurassic World; and Deadpool 2. More than ever, Hollywood is about big movies—big time.

So let me make a pitch for small movies, and their stewardship of what might be called literary values. Inwardness. Language. The intricacies of relationships. Character, in other words, and its cinematic delivery system, acting. And also place. Where the blockbuster, Marvel-comics-inspired movie conjures an opulent fantasy world via the magic of computerized imagery, the small literary movie trains its eye on the world as it is, portraying this or that specific locale as a force that shapes, colors, and limits the kind of lives lived there.

Isolation and beauty define the Montana captured in Wildlife, Paul Dano’s sensitive adaptation of the 1990 Richard Ford novel. Set in the early 1960s in Great Falls, Montana, the film (actually shot in Livingston, Montana) opens and closes with the town seen from above, showing mountains behind and a train passing through its center—on tracks that run along Main Street, as if to remind residents that life is indeed elsewhere. It is a summer of raging wildfires, and when Jerry Brinson, a handsome but feckless family man, loses his job as an instructor at the local golf club, he falls into a self-pitying funk, then impulsively joins the brigades of men volunteering to fight the blaze, leaving his wife and young son to fend for themselves. The distant fire becomes a powerful but unobtrusive metaphor for a marriage whose smoldering resentments threaten to erupt in full fury.

Wildlife tells an archetypal American family story, with the father as modern pioneer, driven by failures to drag his family to ever more remote places; an increasingly resentful mother who wants more; and the child who watches things fall apart. Rootlessness and parental disaffection offset by a child’s deep need for family stability evoke such memoirs set in the 1950s as Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, and are no less powerful here for being familiar. As the family unravels, Joe’s eyes grow ever wider with disbelief and dismay. One sly trick of Wildlife is to keep the worst things offscreen—leaving the camera on the boy’s face, for instance, as his mother strays into unfaithfulness during a dinner at a wealthy car dealer’s home.

First-time director Dano keeps a close focus on his three main actors: Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry, his good looks and bursts of bravado weighed down with a hangdog moroseness; Carey Mulligan as Jeanette, all steadfast optimism until, suddenly, the effort collapses; and Ed Oxenbould as fourteen-year-old Joe, taking it all in, his expression reflecting inner vicissitudes of perplexity, hope, and dismay. Paul Dano is familiar to moviegoers through his own work as an actor, beginning with the underappreciated 2001 film, L.I.E., and proceeding to such Oscar-winning films as Little Miss Sunshine and Twelve Years a Slave. His acting exudes a stolid slowness, and Richard Ford’s writing possesses a similar quality, his characters’ thoughts frequently circling into perseveration. But the slowness works well in Wildlife, which keeps the pace of an introspective and observant child for whom the events of this year in his life constitute a painful dawning. Wildlife lets us watch as Joe’s own watchful intelligence assimilates the shock of new and unsettling adult realities; the film’s heartbreak is mitigated by our sense that such closely studied vagaries of parental pain are already shaping the writer the boy will someday become.

 

The real Lee Israel forged more than four hundred letters in a yearlong spree, and was duly convicted and sentenced.

The place on offer in Marielle Heller’s marvelous Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the Manhattan of the 1990s. With the stark wealth divide of our modern Gilded Age well underway, a struggling middle-aged writer, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) finds her career stalled; her specialty, biography, isn’t exactly a hot discipline, and her current project, a study of Fanny Brice, isn’t finding any takers. It doesn’t help—as her agent, played with snarky verve by Jane Curtin, points out—that her personality is, well, a bit of a load. Lee is pretty much impossible: she drinks too much; she can’t restrain an abrasive sarcasm; and she’s angry and bitter to boot. “My suggestion to you,” her agent says, “is to find another way to make a living.”

Well, she didn’t say anything about an honest living. At the library one day, as Lee sits reading a book about Fanny Brice, a letter signed by Brice herself falls out. Lee slips it into her bag, and a devilish idea begins to take shape. A burgeoning market exists for the signed correspondence of writers, actors, and other celebrities—as she herself knows from having pawned a prized signed letter from Katherine Hepburn. Turning her gift for writing and literary research to illicit use, she begins to forge and sell collectible letters.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that rare film that’s very good not just on one subject, but on several. Not least is its quirky and affecting romance (or anti-romance) of New York. With a jaunty soundtrack that includes Blossom Dearie doing “Manhattan” and Peggy Lee on “Dream Street,” the film summons a seductive metropolitan nostalgia, then sets against it the abrasiveness of Lee’s character and the jagged desperation of her plight, creating a tension conducive both to comedy and to pathos. Co-scripted by Nicole Holofcener, whose own films as writer-director (Walking and Talking, Friends with Money) chronicle the American artsy upper-middle-class, this is the kind of movie Woody Allen would make if he were still making movies with real vitality in them, and not just captivating music.

The film also offers an incisive study of loneliness. The intensely awkward Lee is a person we’d say today is “on the spectrum.” Dealing with people is an onerous task; to escape it, she seeks refuge in the company of her cat and of literature. Her flight from the messiness and complication of others is conveyed in a brief, wan colloquy with a former partner (a cameo by Anna Deavere Smith), and several stunted encounters with a bookstore owner (Dolly Wells) who has a crush on her. Lee finally finds solace in friendship with a merry grifter named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay British man whom she meets in a bar and eventually draws into her scheme.

Closely allied to loneliness is failure, and here too Can You Ever Forgive Me? offers valuable insight. Lee’s scam begins in desperation borne of the urgent need to pay her rent, but bit by bit, as she commits more brazen forgeries, she feels a sense of having accomplished something—as a writer. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker was!” she exclaims. Yes, her forgeries represent an escape from the burdens of actual creative work, and her chameleonic talents reflect her own uncertain sense of self. But the letters she fobs off on dealers are also a hard-won triumph of, for want of a better phrase, close reading. After all, how many people know a writer’s style well enough to be able to channel it? If mimicry is praise, then forgery is worship.

In exploring these paradoxes, the film showcases two superb performances. As Jack Hock, Grant (a veteran actor best known for the 1987 cult film Withnail and I) summons a swashbuckling and irreverent joie de vivre. He physically resembles Christopher Walken, but with a big infusion of brio; he should win an Oscar nomination. And Melissa McCarthy adds a whole new dimension of grittiness to her usual comic persona, using a blocky and misanthropic gracelessness as a lens through which to focus Lee’s underlying humanity.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on a true story. The real Lee Israel forged more than four hundred letters in a yearlong spree, and was duly convicted and sentenced. When she died in 2014, the Times offered a pithy obituary summary of her malfeasance. “As Ms. Israel told it, her forgeries were born less of avarice than of panic, and began after a stretch of poor reviews and writer’s block, mixed with alcohol and improvidence.” Would that we could all prove rascally enough to elicit such a stylish valedictory.

Published in the December 14, 2018 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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