Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin, Dolly Wells, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella
Released: December 6, 2018
Grade: A

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
It’s a narrative that we’ve seen in Hollywood many times – a famous comedic actor makes the transition into drama and impresses both critics and wider audiences.  Think Adam Sander in Punch Drunk Love, Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, Jim Carrey in The Truman Show and Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.  Melissa McCarthy becomes the latest member of that growing group with her lead performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and if you believe the Oscar pundits, an Academy Award nomination awaits.

Set in 1990s New York, McCarthy takes on the role of Lee Israel, a gifted but struggling writer.  She had one success many years ago but the royalties have dried up and now, she can barely meet the rental payments on her small, dingy Manhattan apartment.  Her editor (Curtin) suggests she start writing more commercial stuff but the strong-willed Lee is intent on pursuing her niche projects (such a biography about Fanny Brice) and not “selling out” like fellow writer Tom Clancy.

Melissa McCarthy deserves praise for creating a rich, complex, interesting character.  As we see from her interaction with others, there’s a side to Lee where she’s rude, disrespectful and mean-spirited.  When friends try to offer help or constructive criticism, Lee throws up her defence mechanisms and is quick to push them away.  It’s a major part of the reason she lives alone and rarely socialises.  This is best illustrated in an amusing scene at a writer’s party hosted by her editor.

She may sound like a simplistic grouch but Lee is anything but.  The screenplay from Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money) and Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) looks beyond her prickly persona and shows a softer side that yearns for warmth and attention.  Lee has a deep-seeded desire to love but in the absence of a meaningful human relationship, she pours her affections into her passive cat.  There are fleeting moments where Lee comes out of her shell (such as a date with a bookshop owner) but her self-sabotaging nature usually destroys the chance of something profound.

It’s important to note that Lee Israel is not a fictional character.  Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on her autobiographic novel and it’s for this reason that the film’s second layer is both fascinating and concerning.  Desperate for money, Lee starting forging personal letters from deceased authors such as Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman and Noël Coward and then sold them to wealthy literature lovers.  It’s clear she felt more pride than guilt in perpetuating the fraud.  Her techniques (involving multiple old typewriters) and intricate research provided both inner satisfaction and rent money.

The only person in on the sham was Jack Hock (Grant), a rare friend with whom Lee shared a common love for writing, alcohol and negativity.  There’s so much to enjoy about this film from director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) but the interaction between Lee and the chatty, equally complex Jack is perhaps its strongest element.  Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I) can dust off his tuxedo because it’ll be needed at a few awards shows over the coming months.  It’s a career-defining performance.

Audiences are likely form different opinions about Lee Israel but hopefully they can all agree that this is one of the year’s best films.