Caustic Wit: A 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' film review
by Will Lindus
Dear Brad and Jim,
I should hope that the day, like this letter, finds you well. I can only assume that this letter has properly found its way into your home and into your hands, and was not confiscated by some sticky fingered errant postman. I have recently returned from seeing ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ which stars Melissa McCarthy as best-selling celebrity biographer Lee Israel - an unrelenting woman who turned craft into fame as she committed a series of high-profile forgeries in the early 1990s New York literary scene. I wish that the two of you had been able to join me for this screening, as our weekly discussions on the Movie Bears Podcast would have been a fitting place for further discussion, but as I saw it without you, I hope these words will suffice.
Can you ever forgive me?
An oft-quoted gem by Brad on the nature of comedic films being purely subjective sums up my feelings on Melissa McCarthy quite beautifully. Her films, for lack of a better analogy, are hit or miss for me, more regularly falling in the ‘miss’ category. A shame, truly, as McCarthy is blessed with pinpoint comedic timing and a fearless attitude with the roles that she accepts. However, comedy is indeed subjective, and her performances are not always enough to salvage scripts that fall short of tickling my funny bone.
Delighted I am to announce that ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ allows us to see a different side of Melissa McCarthy, one still showcasing her comedic timing and fearless attitude, but focusing more on a level of gravitas previously unseen in her performances. As Lee Israel, she is unlikable and caustic, but also (a contradiction, sure) likable and relatable and pitiable. One imagines that a real life friendship with Lee would be a chore, as the prickly woman is as adept at keeping a wall between her and others as she is at infusing wit into her writing.
You see, as Israel’s writing style goes out of fashion with the literary world and even with her own agent, and as personal debts begin to mount, she discovers that by forging letters written by famous authors, she can earn a living while also flexing her writing muscles. Nevermind the fact that these forgeries are quite illegal; she can pay her rent and feel worth in herself as a writer. There’s a lot to balance here, and McCarthy’s brazen attitude and depth of emotion captures Israel’s angles magnificently.
Joining McCarthy is Richard E. Grant as the breezy John Hock, arguably Israel’s only friend as well as her literal partner in crime. A free-spirited drifter a heart, Hock has a reputation for having slept with half of the men in Manhattan, a point regularly brought up as both a barb and, perhaps, as a point of pride in his verbal duels with Israel. If the expertly penned script by writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (a fitting name) is the mind of this film, and the superb direction by Marielle Heller (‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’) is the set of lungs which give it breath, then the chemistry between McCarthy and Grant’s characters is its beating heart.
A caustic and witty friendship by a pair of caustic and witty people, brought to life by a caustic and witty script. I fear that I’ve perhaps worn out the meaning of these terms through abundant use. Can you ever forgive me?
The bottom line, as they say, is that ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is as surprising as it is memorable. The surprises don’t lie in the narrative flow itself; the individual story beats are ripped from the real-life story of Lee Israel’s infamous forgeries, and present themselves on screen in a fairly straight forward manner. No, the surprise comes from seeing an actress take her obvious talents and apply them in a way that allows one to see her in a new light. I am quite smitten by this film, and hope against hope that it doesn’t get buried in the deluge of ‘awards season films’ that’s about to overtake us.
4.5 out of 5 Bear Paws