Many of the greatest writers to have ever lived wrote their stories and ideas whisked under the heavy smoke of dive bars and speak easy's in New York City; basked in the heavy odour of dried gin, bourbon and whiskey, some of the world's literary genius' stories have been told on the silver screen over the last few decades. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I can assure you, is not one of those stories.
Yet, even though Lee Isreal (Melissa McCarthy) isn't one of those writers, her story is just as entertaining and captivating as one of the greats.
Isreal, played masterfully by McCarthy, is a frumpy, miserable biographer who has profiled some iconic subjects, including Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder; the later who was easily responsible for destroying her career due to a less than favourable depiction. After her biography of Lauder, Isreal quickly declined into a life of alcoholism, wage labour and loneliness. Can You Ever Forgive Me? picks up right at Israel's multitude of misfortune; showcasing her inability to pay rent, live in less than sanitary living conditions and barely being able to support herself and her sick cat, Jersey.
After being fired from her job for drinking while working, Isreal coincidentally runs into an old acquaintance Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) at a local bar. While the two reminisce of 'pissing' off some guests at a recent party, the two share some stories, drinks and laughs together, and quickly become drinking buddies and eventual friends, much to Isreal's surprise. The chemistry between McCarthy and Grant, although not romantic, is reminiscent of some of the best Bonnie and Clyde type pairings in film in recent memory. While the duo are both very different personalities, thanks to the forceless acting of both nuanced and comedic actors, Lee and Jack bounce off one another's miscreant behaviour as if they were two hyenas; starving on the streets of New York, drunk with possibility, old memories and wonderment. Watching Can You Ever Forgive Me? just for the promise of getting some of the best buddy-con comedy moments of 2018, would be an understatement.
Yet, no matter how many good times and stiff drinks the two share, the realities of the real world comes crumbling down on them in disarraying fashion, especially onto Isreal. Threatened with eviction and the possibility of losing her cat at any given moment due to its declining health, as fate would have it, Isreal stumbles across a genuine letter written by Fanny Brice during her research at a local library. Thinking of it more as a meal ticket than as a collectors piece, Isreal sells the letter to a local bookstore collector Anna (Dolly Wells), thus giving her the brilliant idea to embellish other letters by prominent celebrity figures for monetary gain. Visiting local archives and stealing original letters, embellishing her own letters out of thin air or adding her own flair to already existing letters, Isreal's escapades amounted to over four-hundred forged pieces of work.
While the real-life Israel passed away in 2014, the author's most infamous works still remain to be her criminal activity and the embellishment of these letters, as well as the confessional novel in which this movie is based on. While upon its release, many critics, publishers and the literary community found the novel to be overtly tongue-in-cheek, and merely another form of a meal ticket for Isreal following her criminal activity. Yet, the film itself is a very sombre and lumpy depiction, very carefully avoiding as much spectacle, glamour and embellishment of its own, telling a very straight forward story of a woman who is down on her luck and who's back is against the wall, left with no other options.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? wouldn't be able to exist without the quite exquisite performance of McCarthy; its clear she wasn't copying anyone else while portraying an unpleasant woman with not much positivity in her life. McCarthy, who was recommended to the director by her husband Ben Falcone, already being cast in a role, following the departure of Julianne Moore, puts to rest any unease one may have about a dramatic career for the infamously notorious comedienne, who's rise to fame came quickly and almost unexpectedly in 2011 following a star making performance in Bridesmaids. McCarthy showcases a range of excellent sleight and dry comedic demure with her negativity, slightly giving the audiences glimpses of her dark wit and using it towards an unlikable character whose moral compass isn't very aligned with the realities and expectations of the world.
Alongside her partner in crime, McCarthy's performance is so nuanced yet gripping, it elevates the performances of everyone around her, including Dolly Wells, a naive and charming inherited bookstore owner who also shows some interest in Isreal's talent and personality. Isreal's interaction, including a very emotionally closed off 'date' with Anna at a restaurant are among the most memorable scenes in the film. Luckily for the tone of the film, none of these interactions are overtly showy, which sits respectfully next to the tone of film. Sadly, as we've seen too many times in the past, Academy Awards voters aren't always easily convinced with very subtle and quietly ingenious performances. It's without question that the studio and actress herself will be campaigning for a Best Actress Nomination come this holiday season, but only time will tell whether voters will respond to the actress's transformation.
While Can You Ever Forgive Me? could be a hard film to recommend to others, due mostly to the fact that mentioning McCarthy's name may give general audiences' some sort of physical, goof-ball level comedic performance expectations, no thanks to horrid roles for McCarthy in The Boss and Tammy. Yet, McCarthy proves she is not to be underestimated. Can You Ever Forgive Me? may not prove to be the best performance by an actress in 2018, but it sure as heck may be the most pleasantly surprising; a type of performance audiences can clap and root for come Awards season and for many other comedy actresses in the near future. Here is looking at you Kate McKinnon.
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