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Despite her brilliant energy and comic timing, Melissa McCarthy has starred in a number of not-so-great and forgettable movies—a streak that ends with Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Here, McCarthy makes a grouchy curmudgeon into a surprisingly sympathetic figure, throwing off her likable persona to play someone who is cold to those close to her, and mean to just about everyone else.
As a biographer who specializes in telling other people’s stories, Lee Israel (McCarthy) doesn’t value name recognition as much as her literary agent (Jane Curtin). She also doesn’t dress up for parties or mingle with other writers well, and it’s costing her professionally. After losing her job, her beloved cat taking ill and receiving an eviction warning, Israel adapts her writing skills into creating fake letters from famous names and selling them for hundreds of dollars. It becomes a wildly lucrative new career—one that attracts the attention of the FBI. In trying to avoid detection, Israel enlists her close friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), to keep the fraud going until the feds catch up with them both.
Like Heller’s debut, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” her next film is a period piece of an era that’s not too far from our memory yet features stories we likely haven’t seen before. Her first film was about the coming-of-age misadventures of a teenager (Bel Powley) growing up in 1970s San Francisco. This time, Heller sheds the Polaroid palette she used in that movie for a look that captures the in-between feeling of its era—one where the grimiest of years had passed yet working writers could still afford to live in Manhattan. Visually, it’s a style that balances the sleek qualities of skyscrapers and the warm tones of wooden shelves and books in an old dusty shop. Outside, Israel walks through a dreary looking New York City, as if the weather reflects Israel’s less-than-sunny outlook on life.
The range in McCarthy’s performance cannot be overstated. At almost every turn, her character gives the audience plenty of reason not to like her. Yet, with Heller’s sympathetic approach and McCarthy’s acting, the movie humanizes her beyond caricature. The part is far from any number of one-note roles McCarthy has been boxed into. Here, she plays a combative personality who really only shows regular kindness to her ailing cat and whose social awkwardness also causes her to get defensive against those trying to help or befriend her. When on a date with a bookshop owner who likes her work, Israel fumbles through flirting with the woman. There’s so much vulnerability just below this character’s prickly surface, yet the audience only gets to see those moments in short bursts.
To balance out the caustic on-screen personality, Grant plays Hock as Israel’s polar opposite in almost every way. Where Israel is most comfortable being frumpy and grumpy, Hock is charming and dresses up to compensate for his transient lifestyle. She struggles to connect with outsiders, while he connects with almost everyone who crosses his path. He’s a bit like a grown-up raconteur in the spirit of Grant’s character in “Withnail & I,” a devilishly charming person who shakes the dust off someone whose become too complacent with life. Israel and Hock make a delightful odd couple of friends, meeting regularly for drinks at one of the Village’s oldest gay bars and trading friendly barbs at each other. Their delightful rapport feels so lively, that when it shatters, the silence that moves in between the two best friends becomes the most painful part of Israel’s demise.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is at once a low-stakes crime drama, a buddy comedy, a period piece and a loving tribute to a woman who at this point in her life and career did not feel loved. The movie not only revisits the real Lee Israel’s old New York haunts like the bar Julius', but also returns to the scenes of some of her crimes, the now-fading independent book shops where she sold her fake letters. Even the jazz standards that play throughout were chosen because they were some of Israel’s favorite songs. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” comes from a place of understanding and love that few other biopics do, and it makes this difficult character a joy to meet.
This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10th, 2018.