Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Reclusive author Lee Israel is a miserable case. She used to have one of her novels on the New York Times bestseller list, and now she’s in her early 50s, lives alone with her 12-year-old cat, has her previous books selling for 75% off at a nearby bookstore, and can’t get her agent’s attention. When she finally barges into her agent’s office to ask for a $10,000 advance for a new book she’s writing so she can pay her bills and provide healthcare for her cat, the agent bluntly tells her that she couldn’t be able to give her a $10 advance because hardly anyone will buy her book. Lee smarts off to her, and her response is she’s not successful enough to be a bitch.

This is a scene set early into the proceedings of the indie drama “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” a film that tells Lee Israel’s story based on her own autobiographical novel of the same name, and I knew right away that director Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty knew what they were doing here. And the rest of the film didn’t disappoint.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a drama with little bits of dark comedy and cynical wit sparkled throughout, which is something I always appreciate in a film that strives for a realistic feel (and something most “serious” filmmakers also need to keep in mind). Sharp writing and solid direction keep it flowing, but the most important ingredient that makes “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” truly memorable is the leading performance by Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel.

McCarthy is best known for starring in mainstream comedies like “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy,” “Identity Thief,” “Tammy,” and “Ghostbusters (2016).” She occasionally plays it straight, such a solid supporting performance in “St. Vincent,” but she’s best known for her crass mouth and constant improvisation (which grates on me from time to time). Here, for “Can You Ever Forgive Me”, she takes center-stage, playing this loner, depressed, angry author who could easily be the life of the party (like McCarthy usually plays in other movies) but chooses not to be. And McCarthy does brilliant work here, in a performance that should land her an Oscar nomination.

The story for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” involves Lee Israel as she discovers a get-rich-quick scheme that gets her good money for a while: to forge letters “written” by talents such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward and sell them to collectors for a hefty price. She’s able to convince just about everyone she sells them to…for a while. Before it’s too late or too soon, the authorities catch wind of Lee’s scam. So, she enlists the help of her friend, the charming, flamboyant Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, very good here) to take over the task of selling her future fakes. (Another thing I love about this film: McCarthy and Grant are fabulous together.) But soon after that, the jig is up…

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is based on a true story from the early-1990s, and the real Lee Israel (who died in 2014) wrote about the whole experience in a novel, which inspired the screenplay. You can tell how much detail was put into the production. There are enough biting insights to keep anyone who has only the slightest bit of interest in writing invested, you get a good sense of the world of collectibles and memorabilia, and cinematographer Brandon Trost also has a great eye for the era as well. And director Heller, who’s now helming the upcoming Tom Hanks Mr. Rogers biopic, has a bright future ahead of her. But first and foremost is Melissa McCarthy’s stellar leading performance as Lee Israel—she’s funny but also bitter and nonetheless earns our empathy. It’s one of the finest performances of the year in one of the best films of the year; a film that effectively blends comedy and drama without getting distracting.

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