Looking Back at 2010s Films: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

7 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, why are we always surprised when comedic actors play it straight?

Seriously–are there any comedic actors who CAN’T play it straight? Why are we always surprised when Adam Sandler turns in a solid dramatic performance or Jason Segel or Bill Murray or Chris Tucker or Seth Rogen or Marlon Wayans or Kristen Wiig or Albert Brooks–I could go on and on, but you get my point. They can stay committed to comedic bits; they can stay committed to going outside of that too.

Same goes for Melissa McCarthy–critics were surprised to see a different side to her, given her reputation as a loud, obnoxious, abrasive personality in several mainstream comedies (one of which even gave her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress). She also had a dramatic supporting role in “St. Vincent” in 2014, but hardly anyone saw that. In Marielle Heller’s biopic “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” she takes center-stage as Lee Israel, a failed novelist who made a living by forging celebrities’ memorabilia and selling it. She forges letters “written” by Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, among others, and sells them to collectors for huge amounts of cash. Her fakes are so believable, and she’s able to keep it going for a while, but of course, she has to get caught. (That’s not a spoiler–this is based on a true story.)

McCarthy is wonderful in this film (and thankfully she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her work). She has to be drinking constantly, she has to be resentful of her falling career, she has to lash out on the wrong people, she does all these illegal activities to earn money–it takes work to make someone like that likable, and McCarthy pulls it off. Actually, she plays it like the exact opposite of the kind of character she’s used to–she’s not the life of the party, but she COULD be if she opened herself up to society.

It’s when we see her with her only friend (outside of her 12-year-old cat), a charming but weathered gay man named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, also nominated for his fine work), that we see what it’d be like to be around her when she lowers her defenses, and she can make for good company.

Oh, and best of all–SHE DOESN’T IMPROVISE! That’s one of my pet peeves about her comedic work–sometimes, she doesn’t trust the script enough to be funny, and she’ll try so hard to make people laugh that she’ll ramble after the bit should be over. Here, she trusts the writing of a script (that was also nominated, for Best Adapted Screenplay) and Heller’s direction.

The script, by the way, was written by Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener. Whitty is a playwright best known for the stage musical “Avenue Q,” but Holofcener has become well-known to me after I saw both this film and the Netflix Original film she directed (“The Land of Steady Habits”), which were both released around the same time. Then I would look up what else she wrote and/or directed and check out these other indie treasures, like “Walking and Talking,” “Lovely and Amazing,” “Friends With Money,” “Please Give,” and “Enough Said”…and it turned out I had apparently seen some “Parks and Recreation” episodes she did (and one episode of “Togetherness”). Now that I know who she is, I’m very glad her work for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has been recognized by so many Screenplay awards.

Marielle Heller previously made the solid indie coming-of-age film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which I only learned about from the audio commentary from The Lonely Island film “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” in which she made a cameo as a documentary filmmaker “best-known for the great indie flick ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl.'” (When I looked up the film was when I found out Heller was Jorma Taccone’s wife.)

Her next film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, comes out this fall, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.

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