‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ and Melissa McCarthy Soar to Greatness (FILM REVIEW)

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For all the flack she gets, it’s easy to forget that Melissa McCarthy is an Oscar nominated actress. Her turn as Megan in 2011’s Bridesmaids gave us a taste of the kind of performance McCarthy was capable of delivering, even if she ultimately missed out on the statue. Since then, she hasn’t so much languished as she has bided her time. She’s never disappeared, not exactly, though she has made more than few bizarre choices in roles. Perhaps she’s just been waiting for the right chance, keeping her seat warm, so to speak, until given the opportunity to stretch her limbs properly.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? might just be that chance. Here, McCarthy steps into the role of erstwhile biographer Lee Israel, who ascended in infamy in the early 90s with a scandal worthy of soap operas and tabloids after being caught forging letters from long dead celebrities and writers. The tale is ready made with sordid intrigue and larger than life characters, and McCarthy slips right into it with an aplomb that reminds us of what she is capable when the situation warrants.

Working with director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and screenwriter Nicole Holofcener (Every Secret Thing), McCarthy seems dead set on at least getting another nomination under her belt, if not taking home the gold, and honestly she just might pull it off. They’re a three-punch combo to be reckoned with and have made one of the more enjoyable movies of the season.

Israel, you might remember, was a biographer whose star had fallen thanks to an abrasive attitude, alcoholism, and the abject failure of a book on Estee Lauder. We meet her here, forced into the drudgery of a work-a-day existence, which she can’t even manage. Fired, broke, on the verge of homelessness, and with a new project no one wants to touch, a mix of serendipity and careful scheming sends her down a path to becoming one of the most prolific forgers in American history, faking nearly 400 letters from celebrities and selling them to collectors.

It would be easy to dehumanize Israel; she’s certainly an unlikeable character even disregarding her criminality. She’s brash, offensive to a fault, and does her level best to push people away. Turning her into a monster would have been understandable, but McCarthy, Heller, and Holofcener paint a rich portrait of a pained individual just trying to get by. Together, they find the heart, humor, and tragedy of the story that never asks us to judge or condemn its subject, but rather to understand and to know.

Indeed, we don’t have to approve of or even like Israel to appreciate her story, though McCarthy does make it hard to outright hate her. She’s joined by the one friend she has left, an aging, erudite street hustler named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, who may also be looking at a nomination come year-end), who balances Israel’s rougher edges and gives her the perfect contrast. They’re an unlikely pair, but McCarthy and Grant create magic out of their uneasy chemistry, and both are absolutely magnetic in their roles.

Heller proves herself to be a director to watch; with two features now under her belt, she’s shown just how varied she can be as a filmmaker and story teller. Each of her two films, different though they are, are imbued with undeniable and irresistible soul that plumbs the depth of character and narrative to tell rich, complex human stories. Her touch here is subtle, allowing McCarthy and Holofcener’s script carry much of the weight, but her fingerprints leave an emotional impression that suggests much more greatness from this brilliant director.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which gets its title from a famed letter forged by Israel in Dorothy Parker’s name, is a fable that explores how decisions can spiral out of our control and become bigger than ourselves. Israel certainly never set out to become one of the most notorious forgers in history, but a dangerous mix of talent, desperation, and opportunity conspired to carve her name in the halls of infamy. The film seeks not to redeem her name so much as tell her story, which it does with an equal blend of heart and respect. It’s a fine story, and a great film, that deserves to be seen and appreciated.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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One Response

  1. Just saw Can You Ever Forgive Me? Overall I thought it was entertaining. I went into it thinking it was a comedy but it was not. My husband fell asleep toward the end of the movie. Next time I’d wait until it came out on cable for one like this.

    Teri Green
    Atlas Biomechanics

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