November 02, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Grade: B
Director: Marielle Heller
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, and Jane Curtain
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 47 min.

In my review of the otherwise awful Melissa McCarthy vehicle Identity Thief five years ago, I took note of a couple of tender scenes in which McCarthy departed from her comedic shtick and showed some dramatic chops, forecasting that she “might one day reap further accolades outside the comedy arena.”

That day may have finally arrived with Can You Ever Forgive Me? Drawn from a memoir of the same name, McCarthy portrays Lee Israel, once a real-life biographer of such stars as Katherine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead before Lee’s creative spark dimmed and her acerbic personality became overbearing. Directed by the up-and-coming Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl and next year’s Fred Rogers biopic, You Are My Friend), the film picks up with Lee in the late 1980s, her latest biography of Estee Lauder already consigned to the bookstore's discount table. She shares a filthy apartment with her only friend, her feeble 12-year-old cat. Lee owes money to everyone, from her super to the local vet, and has taken to pawning keepsakes like personal correspondences from Hepburn. Her agent (a terrific and underused Jane Curtin) won’t return her calls because nobody’s interested in her perpetually next book: a memoir of Fanny Brice, of all people. Lee holds disdain for the New York literati, and the feeling is mutual.

Lee’s the dowdy, grizzled embodiment of a cynical world, which is probably why there’s an instant alchemy between her and Jack Hock when he wanders into her favorite watering hole. Jack is a boozy, drug-addled English grifter and failed writer—his agent either died or moved to the suburbs, samesies. He’s is the flamboyant id to Lee’s crippling introversion, each sharing a nihilistic view of the world. They’re also gay people looking for love in a world that doesn’t love them back.

After hocking an old letter from Brice that she pilfers from the local library, Lee happens upon a money-making scheme. She channels her dormant writing skills, along with her old Smith Corona Electra typewriter, into fashioning forgeries of letters from such bygone celebrities as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. She sells her fakes to collectors around town, fetching nice payouts from an often equally unscrupulous collectables community.

To Heller and screenwriter Nicole Holofcener’s credit, they complement the tawdry details of Lee’s crimes with extensive deep dives into her complicating psyche. Still, their exploration is so multi-layered and diffuse that we don’t really have a better grasp on Lee Israel by the end of the film than we did during the opening ten minutes. Same goes for her relationship with Jack, a friendship of convenience and shared outlook but never trust.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a good film whose dalliance with greatness resides with McCarthy and Grant, Whether alone on screen or sharing scenes with each other, their acting here is effortless and sublime. They’re awards-worthy performances that, unlike their disreputable characters, deserve to be remembered.

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