McCarthy and Grant make for a delicious pair of miscreants in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a memoir brimming with sharp wit and social observations.
Writer turned literary forger Lee Israel's confessional autobiography makes its way to the big screen with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a memoir that features Melissa McCarthy in a more dramatic role than most filmgoers are probably used to seeing her tackle in the post-Bridesmaids stage of her career. At the same time, McCarthy has long specialized in bringing a rich sense of humanity to otherwise larger than life characters in her comedy work, and Israel is certainly a "character" in her own right. McCarthy and her co-lead Richard E. Grant were both widely celebrated for their performances during the film's festival run, and justly so. McCarthy and Grant make for a delicious pair of miscreants in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a memoir brimming with sharp wit and social observations.
The films picks up with Lee in 1991, as the then-51 year old author finds herself struggling financially. Despite having made a successful living writing biographies about high-achieving women in the past, Lee's agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) has begun routinely ignoring her calls and, when confronted, tells Lee that her kind of biographies simply aren't selling anymore. Desperate to make some money fast to cover her expenses (including, her rent and cat's veterinary bills), Lee begrudgingly decides to sell a personal letter written to her by Katharine Hepburn, as a thank-you for the profile that she authored.
However, even Lee is taken aback by how much dealers are willing to pay her for not only Hepburn's note, but also letters from deceased artists and writers. When Lee stumbles upon a similar letter while researching her next biography, she comes to realize that she can make even more money by adding content to further spice them up... or simply creating these letters from scratch. Before long, Lee ropes her drinking buddy and friend Jack Hock (Grant) into her newfound lucrative career as a forger. But how long can the pair keep their charade going before they're found out?
Israel's story was adapted for the screen by writer/filmmaker Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and playwright Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), and very much benefits from their involvement as storytellers. Holofcener, of course, specializes in comedies of manners that embrace an openly caustic sense of humor yet paint their characters in various shades of grey, making the frequently prickly inhabitants of Lee's world the perfect match for her narrative sensibilities. Likewise, Whitty no doubt played a key role in helping Can You Ever Forgive Me? feel authentic in the way it examines the lonely experiences of two aging queer people (Lee and Jack), making their way in New York circa the early 1990s. Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) doesn't shy away from Lee and Jack's unsavory aspects either, resulting in a biopic that's empathetic and open about its subjects, and recognizes that they don't need to be sugar-coated in order to be compelling.
Indeed, McCarthy and Grant make for one of the most (if not the most) delightful onscreen buddy duos of the year in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, whether they're drinking like fish or trading barbs as they enjoy a simple meal together. Both Lee and Jack are characters with "big" personalities that play to McCarthy and Grant's knack for comedy, yet the film also makes room for its stars to explore the pair's vulnerabilities, insecurities, and unscrupulous qualities in a honest and sometimes heart-breaking fashion. While Can You Ever Forgive Me? is McCarthy and Grant's show foremast, the supporting cast around them is quite strong in their own right. Actors like Curtin are excellent in their smaller roles here, though the standouts include Dolly Wells as Anna (a bookshop owner whose feelings for Lee are difficult to discern) and Anna Deavere Smith in a memorable single-scene turn as Elaine, Lee's ex-lover. And of course, McCarthy finds room for her husband Ben Falcone to make a brief appearance of his own as a not so trustworthy collector.
Heller is equally adept behind the camera on Can You Ever Forgive Me?, in the way that she allows the film to be performance-driven. The movie's craftsmanship isn't necessarily on the same level as its acting overall, but the cinematography by Brandon Trost (The Disaster Artist) succeeds in picking out minor details that help to immerse the audience in Lee's world of cluttered apartments and cramped book stores. Can You Ever Forgive Me?'s soundtrack further sets the mood and tone of Lee's story through its selections, especially romantically wistful songs such as Jen Southern's "I Thought of You Last Night" and Peggy Lee's "Street of Dreams". On the whole, the film's technical aspects do a nice job of enhancing its performances and writing without overshadowing them, down to the handsome tweed jackets and assorted '90s fashion recreated by costume designer Arjun Bhasin (Life of Pi).
The actual forgery story thread here isn't as engaging as Lee and Jack's day to day life, though that's partly by design, given the mundane nature of Lee's crimes. All the same, Can You Ever Forgive Me? doesn't go quite as far with its exploration of the demand for Lee's (fake) letters as it arguably could've, while still functioning as a character study, above all else. To be clear, though, the movie's shortcomings are pretty minor in this regard and, thus, easy to overlook - all the more so in light of the shrewd observations that it does make about how people are often deceived by their personal preconceptions about what is and isn't authentic, more than anything else.
All in all, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an excellent memoir that's worth seeing for McCarthy and Grant's terrific performances alone (regardless of whether they end up gaining traction this awards season or not). Fans of Holofcener and/or Heller as storytellers should find all the more to appreciate here, in light of the film's shared ideas and themes with their previous work. It's similarly refreshing to see McCarthy examining darker character territory here, as entertaining as her broader and more lighter-hearted comedy efforts can be. Here's to looking forward to her continuing further down the same path next year, when she plays a mob wife-turned boss in The Kitchen.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is now playing in select U.S. theaters and will expand to additional markets over the weeks ahead. It is 106 minutes long and is rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use.
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- Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) release date: Oct 19, 2018