A recovering drug addict unexpectedly comes home for Christmas in the affecting drama Ben Is Back; Can You Ever Forgive Me? uses a disgraced American writer, Lee Israel’s confessional autobiography as its source material, shedding light on how the struggling author turned to fraud to make a living.
Ben Is Back***
*ing: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, and Kathryn Newton
Directed by Peter Hedges
A recovering drug addict unexpectedly comes home for Christmas in the affecting drama Ben Is Back, a look at the struggles faced by a family with a member battling addiction.
The titular Ben (portrayed by the ubiquitous Lucas Hedges, who also happens to be the son of the film’s director Peter Hedges) decides to leave rehab for the holidays and shows up at his family’s house on Christmas Eve. His mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), is happy to see him, but the rest of the family - including his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance) - is significantly less enthusiastic about his sudden arrival.
His appearance causes disruption, first subtly and then more dramatically as things begin to spiral out of control over the course of a whirlwind day.
The movie navigates the complexities of addiction and the toll it takes on everyone involved.
The focus primarily lies on the relationship of the troubled son and his supportive mother, as the film creates a touching but harrowing scenario and how it impacts the family dynamic.
Ben Is Back successfully skirts cliches and subverts addiction drama conventions, but it eventually veers into quasi-thriller territory built around the search for a stolen dog, a decision that doesn’t quite pay off since the detour doesn’t exactly go in the most convincing direction.
But even when it takes a few wrong turns, the movie remains powerful, thanks in no small part to the terrific performances by the ever-reliable Julia Roberts, who is outstanding here, and Lucas Hedges, who shows us just why he is one of Hollywood’s most rapidly rising stars. Also impressive is Courtney B. Vance who makes an impact even though his character remains more or less on the periphery for much of the film.
It may lose its way for a bit towards the end, but Ben is Back is a touching look at the effect of drug addiction from multiple perspectives, powered by some fine performances.
Director Peter Hedges employs enough nuances here to make this project different and (for the most part) realistic, ultimately offering a moving take on a difficult topic.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?****
*ing: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella, and Ben Falcone
Directed by Marielle Heller
Based on her criminal actions, you might be inclined to think that Lee Israel didn’t cut a very likable figure. Yet, in the hands of director Marielle Heller and actress Melissa McCarthy, the author-turned-literary-forger makes a very compelling subject. The biographical drama Can You Ever Forgive Me? uses the disgraced American writer’s 2008 confessional autobiography as its source material, shedding light on how the struggling author turned to fraud to make a living.
When her biography of Estee Lauder fails to strike a chord with both readers and critics, the misanthropic cat lover (played by McCarthy) faces financial difficulties amidst her failing writing career. While researching for a potential Fanny Brice project, Israel chances upon two letters written by Brice, which she then steals and proceeds to sell. Upon discovering that more interesting letters fetch a higher price, she augments one of the Brice letters before embarking on a lucrative career forging further letters by celebrities.
Melissa McCarthy is riveting as the protagonist and it’s because of her charm and wit that a person with Israel’s rap sheet comes off as someone who is worthy of sympathy instead of derision. The film serves as a wonderful showcase for her dramatic talent and reveals how good the actress can be when she is working with an interesting story and well-written script.
Supporting her with an equally terrific performance is Richard E. Grant as Jack, her flamboyant partner in crime. It is fascinating to watch these two peculiar individuals gravitate towards each other and forge a friendship.
It may not take any surprising turns, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? offers a captivating character study, and along the way, delves into an examination of misfortune and loneliness, driven by heartfelt emotions and deadpan humour, an exploration that will help you understand - if not forgive - a desperate woman’s bid for survival.
Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection