There’s a strange phenomenon surrounding Melissa McCarthy's films: they are either widely loved, such as ‘Bridesmaids’ or ‘Spy’, or utterly cringeworthy, like ‘Identity Thief’ or ‘The Boss’. While she often relies heavily on her comedic skills, she’s shown she has suitable dramatic chops too - and now, with ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’, she may have combined those two styles in a career-defining role.
Lee Israel (McCarthy) is a once-successful author who’s fallen on hard times. Having given up on humanity, there’s really only two things she loves in this world: her cat, and alcohol. Times are tough, and she and her manager Marjorie (Jane Curtin, TV’s ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’) don’t see eye-to-eye on the kind of content she should be writing about. By accident, Lee stumbles across a lucrative business - selling letters from famous authors to collectors - but soon realises that a little embellishment (otherwise known as forgeries) can greatly escalate the asking price. Stumbling into a friend of a friend in a bar one night, Jack Hock (Richard E. Curtis, ‘Jackie’, ‘Gosford Park’), the two team up to monopolise on the profit from the plot. But as the stakes rise, can Lee trust Jack - and how long can she get away with her scheme?
With the potential to fall into a dry, dull rut focusing on the world of literature, screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty choose to focus on character development to keep this real-life story light and digestible. We learn so much about Lee from the way she interacts with the world and snippets of details she accidentally spills - she’s a tough woman, hardened from being burned in the past. Set in her ways, she’s unwilling - perhaps even unable - to trust, yet equally bitter about that fact. Hesitant about her interaction with Jack at first, it takes a huge change of personality to accept him in her life.
While this is a story of a very clever woman pulling off some very unusual extortion, there’s also a switch in the film part-way through - both Lee and Jack are gay, and as the story reaches roughly the halfway point, there’s an LGBTIQ+ element that comes into it. Rather than being a defining factor to Lee’s personality, it’s simply present; the subtlety and deftness making the character more formed and realistic.
Much of what makes Lee so developed and three-dimensional also comes down to Melissa McCarthy’s performance. Make no mistake, my earlier claim stands: this could be the best role of her career. Lee is something of a dastardly person - she’s corrosive, unpleasant, and ends up entangled in illegal acts, yet McCarthy manages to make her not just likeable, but relatable. Perfectly encapsulating the dry wit of the real Lee Israel, this film is much funnier than it could have been, with moments ranging from light snickering to full laugh-out-loud moments. Yet the dramatic moments aren’t lost on McCarthy either - the emotion and depth of the performance is also evident, providing necessary balance to make Lee not just likeable, but believable.
This could be the best role of Melissa McCarthy's career.
Director Marielle Heller (‘The Diary Of A Teenage Girl’) certainly knows that McCarthy is the star here, and puts her front and centre. As just her second feature film, ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is a well-composed work, moulded with a hand both proficient and self-assured. It’s a mellow film, often dark and full of dreary colours, but it’s never dull. Emphasis is placed on wide shots - even in small spaces - to emphasise Lee’s loneliness and isolation. There are also some spectacular song choices; from Jeri Southern’s ‘I Thought of You Last Night’ over the opening credits, the music of the film has a feeling of being lost in time.
The question now is - could this film provide McCarthy with some recognition come awards season? I certainly hope so. I believe it’s entirely deserved, and not only for its star but the film itself. With a story so strange you couldn’t make it up, ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is the perfect kind of biographical film - wholly entertaining, truly enlightening, and entirely fascinating. It’s a glimpse of the life of an unconventional woman, in a wonderfully told and portrayed encapsulation. Don’t let this one sneak by you.