Kay: Melissa McCarthy as the Unlikeable Protagonist

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 Collectors of objects such as art or historical documents are rich, and they just need a place to park their money, often driving up prices of objects that should go into museums or libraries.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?


14 thoughts on “Kay: Melissa McCarthy as the Unlikeable Protagonist

  1. I haven’t seen it yet but now, of course, I have to!

    It sounds like one of the ways this movie failed to hook you on its protagonist was that she wasn’t empathetic–that is, in her situation, you wouldn’t have made the same choices. Wondering if, were the stakes higher (say, she’s doing this to keep a child alive), you would have felt differently?

    • I don’t think I want to watch this movie. I agree that the protagonist doesn’t sound empathetic and I can’t imagine how I’d tweak the plot to make me side with her.

      I don’t think I would feel differently, even if she was doing it to keep a child alive, because (as far as I can tell) she has other options. It’s not a desperate choice of forge and steal *or* let your cat/child starve. It’s a choice of forge and steal *or* use her intelligence and willingness to work to find another legitimate way to pay the bills and put food on the table. If everyone whose career hit a roadblock turned to a life of crime, we’d be living in the Wild West.

    • It definitely would’ve helped if the stakes had been higher, because paying the rent, while important, is not that great a goal. However, I think I still would’ve had trouble with her as a character, because she never once entertained the notion of getting a job. Also she wasn’t very likable, evidently.

  2. I did hit this problem with hero in a contemporary romance I read a few years back. He had sabotaged a previous relationship the heroine was in because he was in love with her, which lead to lots of unforeseen consequences. When the two eventually got together later down the line, I just couldn’t root for them to be together. I thought when she found out the truth, she would cast him aside for all of his manipulative behavior, but when he eventually told her, she was upset for about 30 seconds and then off they went into the sunset. I didn’t have any sympathy for either of them at that point.

    • Yeah, there seem to be a lot of romances, or maybe books in general, that construct a “conflict” that disappears awfully fast when the ending is nigh. I always feel cheated with those.

  3. I haven’t seen the movie, but Melissa has been all over my YouTube feed, plugging the movie. She talks about how it was such an interesting challenge to play an unlikeable character.

    I think artists can fall into that mindset sometimes. It can be a lot of fun writing a really mean, nasty character with no redeeming qualities — but it’s not so fun for the reader to read it. Or at least, for a reader like me, who likes a good emotion over an intricate puzzle.

    Except . . . there’s Sherlock. I really like the idea of Sherlock. His character is a piece of work, but he solves these puzzles in an intellectual way that’s really cool and brings justice to the world.

    If you are the type of reader/viewer who can appreciate all the hard work it is to talk about this story, that’s one thing. It seems to me that a lot of the mid-range literary genre stuff I’ve read falls in this category — we are supposed to appreciate how lifelike it is! Never mind that the life in question is scummy, and will never get any better or nicer.

    OTOH (and yes, I’m swinging back and forth with every paragraph!), the romance genre sometimes makes the happy ending a little too contrived. Once in a while, you run across an unbelievable happy ending that makes no sense in terms of the characters’ previous behavior in the book. You can have the friendliest, nicest characters in the world, but if they don’t do anything, that doesn’t work, either.

    I really admire Melissa, and she’s done some nasty characters for SNL that somehow were very touching and engaging. If I had time, I’d go back and look for those to see how they were made to work (at least for me). (Sometimes they only work in the middle of the sketch.)

    • I think when Melissa McCarthy does a mean character for Saturday Night Live, not only is she taking on a real-life character who is not particularly nice to begin with, but she’s playing it for satire. No one is thinking that this character is modeling real life. She must’ve learned a lot doing those characters, however, because she’s great in this part.

      I like your point about Sherlock Holmes. I’ve never been a big fan of any of the Sherlock manifestations, because I never have understood the relationship between him and Watson, who almost always gets portrayed as a doormat more or less. So what is Sherlock, the great intellectual, doing with him? The best rendition was the one with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, but even that one lost me eventually with the meanness of Sherlocks behavior.

      Contrived outcomes and facile solutions just really don’t cut it.

      • Oh, sure. Lots of stuff is in SNL’s favor — satire is supposed to be mean. And, the skits are usually less than five minutes, so you can stomach a lot of meanness in five minutes, particularly if it’s pointing out bad behavior in order to serve as a warning (not in a beat-you-over-the-head way, but a gentle societal correction way through humor). I’m not sure I would like a whole movie about that — but many people do like movies about mean or sad or tragic people.

        As for Sherlock and Watson . . . Sherlock does need Watson’s medical expertise in some cases, but more than that, he needs Watson’s approval and especially in the Cumberbatch/Freeman version, he needs his friendship. Even though he’d probably deny it with both hands! I think that says something important about the human condition — even if someone holds him/herself apart from the crowd, they still need to be human. They more they deny it, the more they need it.

        That said, I haven’t gotten to season three of Sherlock yet. I read the books, and I remember them with respect (but not always with details).

    • I don’t think any character she ever plays will top my love of her playing Sean ‘Spicy’ Spicer on SNL. The one with the press room podium on wheels had me literally crying with laughter.

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