Let’s talk about unlikeable protagonists. A few weeks ago, Jeanne did. I thought about what she said, and I wasn’t sure I agreed with her. Since then, I’ve seen Can You Ever Forgive Me?
For those of you who don’t go to the movies or haven’t seen this one yet, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the life of biographer Lee Israel, who reaches a dead end in her writing career after her agent rejects her latest project. Out of money and desperate to meet her rent and take her cat to the vet, the movie shows Israel first forging letters from famous, dead actors and writers and then stealing such letters from public libraries and research institutions and selling those, as well.
Movie-wise, I thought Melissa McCarthy did a terrific job playing Israel.
Character-wise, I didn’t like her.
Generally speaking, I don’t approve of stealing. However, if you’re starving and you steal a loaf of bread, that’s different. Dipping deeper in the moral ambiguity department, I don’t much care if con artists rip off collectors. Collectors of objects such as art or historical documents are rich, and they just need a place to park their money, often driving up prices of objects that should go into museums or libraries. If they must collect, let collectors collect Lladro figurines. That’s why they’re called “collectibles.” Even better, let the rich feed and house the poor.
However, stealing from the institutions that preserve our history, that give researchers, scholars, and writers access to original materials so they can contribute to the world’s store of knowledge is unforgiveable.
So I’m watching this movie, and as long as Melissa McCarthy/Lee Israel sells only forgeries to collectors, I can live with that. She can come back from that. But when she went after libraries, she was done. I didn’t care that her cat was sick, that she had no family she was close to or the ability to make friends. She went down a path from which she could not return.
I didn’t like her. I didn’t sympathize with her. And I didn’t empathize with her.
With this movie, I saw an interesting story, reasonably well-told, that left me feeling unengaged emotionally, at least in a positive way. I was pleased that Israel was caught and punished. After that—nothing. I felt nothing for her.
And this is not the way I want to feel after I’ve seen a movie or read a book. I want to feel something.
Jeanne and I aren’t exactly talking about the same thing—she was referring mostly to romance novels and how you keep a reader engaged if the protagonist doesn’t display any warm fuzzies. This movie is no romance, and it certainly didn’t give me any warm fuzzies. I’m not sorry I saw it, but it’s not on my keeper shelf, either, so to speak.
What about you? Have you seen this movie and what did you think? Did it change or shape your opinion about unlikeable protagonists?