Can You Ever Forgive Me? for tricking you into thinking a 98% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes translates into a full and complete story? While the essential pieces are in place to formulate greater meaning with this film, some are painted with such a light stroke as to be almost invisible. Films that break the 90th percentile usually translate into a significant and compelling argument. Can You bucks this trend with its emphasis on character over purpose.
The Character Study
Can You is akin to The Wife in that the focus lies heavily on one throughline—the Main Character Throughline. In contrast, complete stories balance out the personal concerns of the Main Character with the interests of competing alternate perspectives. These different point-of-views add color to the Main Character’s experience by showing what conflict looks like from other angles.
The Influence Character Throughline challenges the Main Character’s approach to resolving conflict.
The Relationship Story Throughline steps back to examine the dynamic of conflict that exists between both Main Character and Influence Character.
And the Overall Story Throughline wraps them all up in a package that is decidedly objective and impersonal when it comes to conflict.
Can You is not so bad as to entirely skip these perspectives—but it does dial them back in such a way that reduces the overall effect and potential of the narrative.
The end result of all this is the feeling that something is missing, some essential piece that would make the film feel more complete. We’re only told one side of the argument, and as a consequence, we’re not really sure what the film is trying to say.
We know homeless and homosexual bon vivant Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) is the right man to influence and challenge Lee’s insecurities. His confidence and impulse to connect at a moment’s notice compliments and impacts her reclusive nature. Yet, the friendship that grows between them is stunted and somewhat awkwardly developed. We know they’re both gay, we know this shared struggle brings them together, yet for some reason, it remains an untold and unaddressed secret within the narrative.
A more in-depth look at the narrative dynamics and thematics helps shed light on what could have been improved.
The Emphasis on Main Character
The foundation for the argument being made in Can You lies within the Main Character Throughline of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy). Her focus on Tom Clancy’s millions and the insecurities she feels towards her personal and professional relationships lock in the Main Character Issue of Security and a Main Character Focus of Results.
Lee’s Main Character Concern of Progress, of how her life continues to get more and more complicated, works nicely with her Main Character Throughline of Universe. Lee likes her “universe” the way it is and will do whatever it takes to stay isolated.
All four of these Narrative Elements—Results, Security, Progress, and Universe—fully illustrate a Main Character perspective and define the Source of Conflict for Lee. We know precisely the kind of inequities she deals with, and we have an idea of what would be needed to resolve her issues.
Lee is a woman with a massive chip on her shoulder. Though we don’t find out why until much later in the story, she isolates herself because of the painful after-effects of her previous relationship.
This dynamic and focus of attention within the narrative sets the Main Character Growth of Stop and a Main Character Problem of Effect. Lee is driven to do what she does because she doesn’t want to get hurt again. She’s focusing on avoiding potential effects, instead of pursuing the real cause of her problems—herself.
By the end of the story, Lee reaches that Main Character Solution of Cause. Her heartfelt mea culpa at her arraignment confirms this Changed Main Character Resolve with the realization that she is her own worst enemy.
Feint Whispers of Narrative
With such a clear personal Throughline set in place, the mind of an Audience member naturally seeks out alternate perspectives.
The Influence Character Throughline needed to challenge Lee’s issues must consist of a fixed attitude, a tendency towards impulsive actions, and bemused confidence unheard of in the Main Character.
Sounds precisely like Jack Hock, doesn’t it?
The Relationship Story Throughline needs to focus on a dysfunctional relationship where unfulfilled expectations drive most of their conflict.
Sounds like what happens when Lee leaves Jack in charge of taking care of her cat, doesn’t it?
Yet, these two perspectives fail to explain themselves throughout the narrative adequately. They come across weak and unrealized in comparison to Lee’s personal Throughline.
Hinting at Something Greater
Jack’s primary source of influence over Lee must extend from Theory—from theoretical constructs that challenge Lee’s preconceptions. This would fulfill the narrative’s need for an Influence Character Problem of Theory. Strong evidence supporting this important narrative Element does not exist within the film, yet you could easily see something like this being added to the story.
Likewise, the relationship between Lee and Jack should explore an imbalance of ability. This would honor the narrative’s need for a Relationship Story Issue of Ability. Both are silenced writers. Both are unable to engage in protracted and prolonged relationships. Why not explore this shared struggle more deeply? It would certainly give greater meaning to their criminal antics swindling bookshops.
And about those illegal activities.
The last perspective needed to bring it all together is the Overall Story Throughline. With all the above set in place, the Overall Story must also explore conflict brought about by an imbalance of Effect—an Overall Story Problem of Effect. Save for the occasional owner driven to effuse some response from a prospective buyer, this Element goes mostly unnoticed—
—except as evidenced by the actions of Lee the Protagonist. She likes the effect her illegal writing has on people and thus, continues to pursue greater and greater criminal activities.
So we see Effect as a Problem for the Main Character subjectively, and we see Effect as a Problem for the Protagonist objectively, and that’s pretty much it.
And that’s why it feels like a character study.
Separating Main Character from Protagonist
Some writers find it strange to separate Main Character from Protagonist. Many conflate their meanings and claim semantics. The struggle only increases when both suffer from the same narrative Element, as is the case in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Yet, a greater understanding of narrative exists at the intersection between the two.
The Main Character perspective is the subjective and personal point of view of the conflict.
The Protagonist is the objective force of initiative driving resolution towards the Story Goal.
More often than not in Western culture, a single Player holds both the role of the Protagonist and the perspective of the Main Character. Lee is one of those Players.
The fact that she is not the only Player in the story points to the problem encountered with conflating these two aspects of narrative.
Building the Character Study
When you focus so heavily on a single Player to the point where all the conflict in the story—both objective and subjective—centers on this one person, you have a character study.
Now, that’s great for actors—but for most Audience members they want something more. They want to be told a story.
And the first step to telling that story is ensuring that conflict is fully explored from all angles.
A Missed Opportunity
The similarities between Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Wife are striking. The focus on the Main Character Throughline to the detriment of others centralizes conflict in a somewhat narrow lane. Both performances excel because of this localized attention, yet the film itself misses an opportunity to say something more.
Can You and The Wife speak of the trials and tribulations of a female writer hiding behind a facade of lies. For those familiar with this struggle, the experience is one of grand familiarity. For those of us on the outside, the way out seems clear, the forces of resistance inconsequential.
An argument firmly implants the meaning of such an experience in the mind of the receiver. A complete argument—one that thoroughly explores all four perspectives—accounts for every possibility and leaves no place for the denier to hide. With a full story, one must confront the realities of not being able to live up to one’s potential because of gender and recognize the kind of change needed to resolve a very real imbalance.
Complete stories change people’s minds. Character studies do not. While they might provide ample opportunity for moving performances and heart-breaking relatable moments, the character study does nothing to advance the minds of those who—facing a weak argument—cast off the accounts of inequity as non-existent and inconsequential.
Complete stories make a difference.