Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is a miserable human being. She’s a drunk, working menial jobs she feels are below her, and does her level best to push away everyone in her life except her elderly cat. In dire straits and driven by desperation, the former best-selling author and celebrity biographer turns to forging personal letters from famous literary figures, selling her wares to unsuspecting collectors. Such is the plot of Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which recounts Israel’s bizarre real-life saga, carried by a soaring, career-best performance from McCarthy.
Though the plot hits familiar beats—that and the fact that it’s a well-known story makes things predictable—it’s a strange enough tale to stand out. The overall arc is standard biopic fare, but coupled with a petty crime dose of criminal rise-and-fall narrative that’s practically Goodfellas-esque. It’s one of those stranger-than-fiction true stories, and intriguing enough in that regard, but its McCarthy who truly drives everything.
Most known for her big, over-the-top comedy, the script from Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty gives McCarthy her most dramatic role to date, and she’s more than up for the task. Lee’s a bitter, misanthropic, thoroughly unlikeable person, and it’s down to the actress to humanize her and get the audience in her corner. She’s caustic and self-centered, but also heartbreakingly relatable as someone who the world has passed by. Beyond a simple means of staying afloat, she pours her creative spirit and efforts into her forgeries; more than just a source of income, they represent a lifeline, a tether.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? peaks when it focuses on Israel and her flamboyant hustler BFF, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). Equally down on his luck, not to mention equally selfish and lonely, but far more boisterous and optimistic, he’s the perfect foil to Lee. Grant is charming and sharp, giving as good as he gets, playing it all with a devil-may-care twinkle in his eye. As good as McCarthy is, he’s every bit as fantastic, and it’s a joy watching two performers working at the top of their respective games. The story is about two isolated outsiders finding each other, clashing and pushing and tormenting, but also forming a deep bond both lack.
Heller and cinematographer Brandon Trost capture what’s lovely about New York City, but also what makes so very lonely. Cold, cruel winters are both picturesque and cutting; desolate hole-in-the-wall dives with time-scarred bars and stiff drinks are simultaneously alluring and romantic, yet deeply sad.
Haunting and equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, Can You Ever Forgive Me? leaves a few strands dangling, including the one real regret Lee has, which creates a “but what about…” sensation. It’s an intriguing enough, if predictable, story, well-constructed in most regards, but the performances from Melissa McCarthy and Richard Grant, and the friendship between Lee and Jack, sell the film and make it worth watching. [Grade: B+]
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