Can You Ever Forgive Me? Review
Melissa McCarthy may have made her name in bawdy comedies like Bridesmaids and The Heat, but as the years have passed by (and it’s only been seven) memorable scripts and performances have become increasingly thin on the ground. Whether it’s the films she picks, or just a case of over-familiarity, McCarthy has been in need of a reset for a while, otherwise all roads might start to lead towards more duds like The Happytime Murders.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? proves that there is life beyond forgettable comedy fare, with a role that has seen her and Richard E. Grant pick up Oscar nominations last week. Grant is in fine form as a Withnail and I-esque drunken rascal (although much less of a selfish bastard). Director Marielle Heller's film is based on the true story of biographer-turned-forger Lee Israel, who in the early 90s ripped-off hundreds of typed letters originally written by literary greats.
When we meet Lee she is a down-on-her luck writer, who despite having previously published a New York best selling title, is 3 months behind on rent and can’t afford to pay vet bills for her sick cat. She’s working on a new book about Fanny Brice that her agent tells her won’t earn a dime, and her lack of social skills means she has no friends in (or outside) of literary circles who can give her a leg up. But there’s rent to be paid and her cat needs treatment, and with options limited she stumbles across a possible solution.
Lee starts to forge letters by people such as Noel Coward, Katharine Hepburn and Dorothy Parker, before selling them off to collectors at local book stores. She soon gets a taste for it and seems to find her artistic calling as the money starts to roll in. Along the way Lee becomes fast friends with Richard E. Grant’s Jack Hock, a man who is as loose with the truth as he is with his men. All seems to be going well until red flags are raised about the authenticity of Lee’s letters and it isn't long before the FBI start sniffing around.
Lee isn't the most likeable of characters, but more worryingly, neither is she particularly interesting. She's a frumpy curmudgeon who prefers talking to her cat than speaking with other people (a recognisable writer’s trait for sure). McCarthy gives an honest performance and the light comedy of Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script plays into her comedic strengths. Why she struggles to trust people – which is crucial to her developing a friendship with Jack – and why her past relationships were so troubled remain a mystery. There isn’t enough in McCarthy’s performance to embellish that into her character either. The script lacks depth which makes it hard to empathise or even enjoy her acidic personality.
Grant steals the show with his cheeky performance and he’s clearly enjoying the roguish charisma required of his character. Complete with bolo tie and cigarette holder he’s able to bounce off McCarthy as the joker in their double act. They make a good pairing, although the humour isn’t always sharp enough to make their interactions stick. What’s also missing in the film is a sense of scale, as it’s a surprise to see the FBI called into investigate. We see a handful of forged letters and brief glimpses of Lee’s busy desk, but each one is sold for between $200 and $500, and with no idea of how long this has been going on, it’s a shock to hear she was responsible for forging over 400 letters.
Julianne Moore was originally lined up to play the lead role, but for one reason or another that didn’t happen and McCarthy feels like the right fit. Talk of her performance being one of the best of last year is misjudged, but it’s a return to her theatrical roots and shows she has more strings to her bow other than forgettable brash comedies. Complemented by Nate Heller's bookish score (cellos/pianos), her Lee Israel fits neatly into an inoffensive story that serves as a platform for its performers, rather than creating a character study that will be worth remembering in years to come.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in UK cinemas on Friday 1st February.