Some stories are so ridiculous they have to be true. Such is the case with the delightful crime story, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. McCarthy journeys through uncharted waters as Lee Israel, an acclaimed biographer living in Manhattan in the early 90s. With beautiful production design and convoluted characters this film is one that you cannot afford to miss.
As Lee Israel (McCarthy) enters her fifties she experiences a bit of a set back. She was recently fired, is months behind in rent, without any friends, and worst of all cannot afford to care for her beloved sickly cat. Once an acclaimed author of celebrity biographies, she no longer can produce moneymaking material according to her agent. One night while sitting alone at a bar she frequents she reunites with a casual acquaintance, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), and the two become a pair of unlikely friends and roommates. Together they roam the streets Manhattan, bickering like an old married couple, and making prank calls late at night. While researching her next project she finds an old letter hidden inbetween the pages of a book about the late comedian, Fanny Brice. She quickly tucks away the letters inside her bag and decides to sell them. She’s disappointed when she’s given less than one hundred dollars but she’s told that she could have gotten more if there were personal antidotes or content within the letters. Out of ideas and money, Lee begins forging her own more personal letters, selling them to bookstores and collectors. When she eventually lets Jack in on her secret, his involvement brings on a new level of crime and suspicion.
When it comes to films where the protagonist deliberately commits a crime without showing remorse, it’s hard to make that character sympathetic or likeable. Lee Israel is horribly unpleasant, self-deprecating, argumentative, and downright miserable. The film provides multiple opportunities for you to hate this character but that is essentially impossible, thanks to McCarthy’s fantastic and oddly charming performance. It’s not uncommon for comedians to take on a dramatic role and be praised so this comes at no surprise. McCarthy has already proven she is capable of this level of high recognition; don’t forget her performance in 2011’s Bridesmaids earned her an Oscar nomination. McCarthy seems to be attracted to over the top characters that are physically humorous or out of touch with reality. Like many of her earlier works this dramatic comedy focuses on a woman who oddly enough feels like a caricature despite being a real person. Thanks to McCarthy’s portrayal of her, this role is more reserved and nuanced than we are accustomed to seeing from her. Instead of this being a turn off I found myself drawn to her performance and it caused me to feel sympathy towards Lee. This speaks to McCarthy’s power as an actor to make you think differently of a person who should be rather unsympathetic.
The same can be said for Richard E. Grant who plays Jack Hock, Lee’s closest friend. From the moment he arrived on screen I knew that he was going to be a lot of fun. In a lot of ways he’s the opposite of Lee, he welcomes conversation with strangers, confidently flirtatious, but just as abrasive. He’s also a swindling drug dealer and compulsive liar. Just like McCarthy, Grant’s performance is excellent. Hidden behind his flamboyant appearance and dramatic personality is a dejected man simply wanting to be loved. Their friendship is rather complicated; each of them struggles to open up to being loved by the other, both are searching for meaning in their lives and in the end I’m not exactly sure that either of them find that. Normally this would leave me unsatisfied but this time around I didn’t think it was as important. The two of them play off each other wonderfully and their friendship will warm your heart.
Two stellar performances are reason enough for you to go see Can You Ever Forgive Me? On its own the story is very interesting, the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty is beautifully written, full of humor, charm, and wit. The production design by Stephen H. Carter also caught my attention. It takes you back to films from the early 90s, it’s a cozier perspective of Manhattan, and even reminded me of some Woody Allen films. McCarthy and Grant bring these complicated characters to life and it’s a lot of fun watching the two of them. Hopefully McCarthy will continue to take on more roles like this in the future.
4 out of 5 stars
Director: Marielle Heller Writers: Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells & Ben Falcone Release Date: October 19th Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour and 46 minutes