Can You Ever Forgive Me? Review

Despite how often Hollywood has tried leverage Melissa McCarthy as a blue-collar comedic tool to make a buck, there’s no denying the comic actress is one of the greatest talents to emerge from the 2010s. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” rounds out her incredible decade with a more dramatic, down-to-earth role that shows that her talent comes from a deep, not merely surface-level/physical place. 

A master at amplifying on-screen chaos and manifesting razor-sharp comedic daggers from thin air, McCarthy has mostly showcased her ability to improvise a scene into another stratosphere, but “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” proves she’s just as capable working off a script. And this is a darn good one. Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”) and first-time writer Jeff Whitty craft playful and poignant dialogue as they bring to life the desperate and sad life (and criminal activity) of biographer Lee Israel. 

As a single, unkempt, alcoholic, misanthropic cat lady, Lee Israel easily fits the mold for McCarthy’s countless comedic roles, so no leap of belief is required. Conversely, she could easily have delivered on only the humorous, stereotypical notes of her character. Instead, she reaches down to grab hold of the authenticity of Israel’s situation and experience. The crux of her performance is the ease with which she wields the humor and the bitter truth she puts behind each swing. 

The entire film lives in an unusual space between fanciful crime comedy and sad pathos. Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), a rising director, seems to excel in the uncomfortable place between humor and truth. Israel, a one-time best-selling biographer seemingly at the end of her rope, turns to a life of forgery when she realizes she’s somewhat adept at writing fake correspondences from famous literary figures and there’s a huge market for them. Along the way, she reconnects with an old acquaintance named Jack (Richard E. Grant), a boisterous gay drug dealer in a similar place, in whom she confides and forms a mischievous partnership. 

That Grant goes toe-to-toe with McCarthy on all accounts says everything about his performance. The longtime character actor has always had a certain panache, but he comes alive on the wings of this script, and like with McCarthy’s role, there’s space for powerful honesty to emerge at various moments. Both parts are just expertly conceived and constructed, and Heller clearly knows how to work with comically gifted individuals: she helped coax Kristen Wiig’s best dramatic performance to date in “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” 

There’s a bit of a simplicity to “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” but it’s not boring. Rather, the appeal is in the writing and performance, less so premise and visuals. Few characters were better realized on screen in 2018.

4/5 Stars

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Directed by Marielle Heller
Written by Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant


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