Melissa McCarthy Forges Her Way Into The Oscar Race With 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is, as the title suggests, a film about doing something regrettable. However, there’s sometimes magic in regret and Melissa McCarthy finds it as disgraced writer Lee Israel. For an actress who’s so often the eye of the comedic storm, McCarthy plays it stunningly straight as Israel. It’s a sharp performance in a movie that crosses genres and celebrates the magnetism of literary success, even if it’s unearned.
Directed by Marielle Heller from a script by the talented duo Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me? introduces Israel at her lowest. A once sought-after biographer, she can’t even afford rent anymore, her cat needs the vet, and her agent (Jane Curtin) tells her no one wants to read her stuff. Lee has an idea to write about Fanny Brice, but it goes nowhere.
However, while researching Brice, Lee makes a discovery. She finds a personal letter written by the vaudeville star and wonders what it’s worth. When she’s told it’s not as valuable as other, more personal, celebrity letters, Lee gets an idea. She buys an old typewriter and sets out forging letters from flamboyant personalities like Noël Coward and Edna Ferber in order to sell them to collectors. Israel methodically inhabits and mimics other stars’ writing styles and fools everyone. She becomes a literary Beltracchi as she gets in way over her head and eventually attracts the attention of the FBI. Yes, this is a true story, based on Israel’s memoir of the same name.
Instigating Israel along the way is her drinking buddy and eager accomplice Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay cokehead who’s a walking cry for help, but also monstrously funny. Lee sees what she wants to see in him and finds comfort in having a partner along for the ride. Doing illegal things is always easier with someone else.
McCarthy and Grant form one of 2018’s great screen partnerships and elevate Can You Forgive Me? to lofty heights. Lee Israel is the perfect foil for McCarthy, allowing her to be sullen and excitable while never losing her comedic edge. She’s simply the butt of more jokes here than we’re used to. And Grant is in his element as the devilish Jack, a character with the soul of Withnail, but probably closer in spirit to the shameless leech he plays on HBO’s Girls. He’s Satan on Israel’s shoulder and the comedic motor of the film.
Heller, meanwhile, shows a steady hand navigating the funny/tragic material. It’s a savvy, intuitive film that comes alive with Lee’s newfound “success.” It reminds us of the seductive power of, not just money, but success in one’s field. The world of literature has always been a vast power struggle filled with big talent and bigger egos. So we don’t emotionally indict Lee for her decisions. We root for her. She’s not a murderer, but she’s nonetheless doing permanent interior damage. The film is complex enough to enter Israel’s head and McCarthy is talented enough to show us her true feelings, often without saying a word.
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