Movie Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?




Director: Marielle Heller

by Jason Koenigsberg

Deviating from her usual routine of absurd comedic roles, Melissa McCarthy stretches her dramatic talents in a terrific performance of an unlikeable and unsavory character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. This is a showcase for Ms. McCarthy to cross genre’s and earn acclaim for the acting chops she always had but seldom demonstrates because she is one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood making the same types of comedies. She plays Lee Israel, a writer/biographer who has fallen out of step with current tastes in literature and struggles to get her newest work written and published. So instead she turns her writing ability into creating forgeries of letters from deceased celebrities. It is a true story about a loathsome person with a lot of heart and Melissa McCarthy makes her character sympathetic when she should be despised. 

The opening tells us we are in New York City in 1991 as we hear the sound of ice in a rocks glass. The first shot is of McCarthy as Lee Israel drinking scotch from the rocks glass, at this moment the audience learns she is an obvious alcoholic and this is an affliction that will plague her character throughout this movie. She loses her job in the first scene because of her drinking and now has to make ends meet. With no help from her agent (Jane Curtin) and through a series of coincidences learns that she has a knack for creating forgeries of letters. As the story develops to do her forgery skills and her penchant for getting away with her crimes to pay her rent and make ends meet starts to get carried away to the logical conclusion that it will catch up with her. Some of the best parts of Can You Ever Forgive Me? are the small scenes that illustrate her character as a lonely, sad washed-up has-been with little to no regard for other people. She loves her cat more than she loves any human. Eventually, Lee Israel connects with Jack Hock (played sublimely by Richard E. Grant) an alcoholic, gay, British drifter wandering/sleeping with men through Manhattan and he becomes her affable drinking buddy and partner in crime. He is her closest relationship we see in the film and even there she has immense disdain for him as she belittles him. 

melissa mccarthy
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

The smooth jazz score as she walks around the city and types on her various typewriters compliment the images eloquently. The viewer will be entranced even as they are watching an unattractive person simply going about their mundane life. The struggles she faces are relatable and that makes Lee Israel a more empathetic character than she should be. The other main reason is that Melissa McCarthy really delivers a knockout performance. She makes one of the most engaging degenerate losers someone to be easily emotionally vested in. Her subtle mannerisms the way she displays a conscience even as she sells her first few forged letters to an excited buyer, we can see on her face the guilt and disbelief that she is fooling a stranger that means well and pays her adequately. Melissa McCarthy’s face and trembles in her voice have never communicated so much with so little dialogue. She has played loudmouths before and certainly has some very brash moments in Can You Ever Forgive Me? but never as calmly unnerving as she has here. 

Sure the movie is not perfect. There are a few edits with conversations with shot-reverse-shots that do not match up. Those continuity errors are slightly annoying especially when they happen more than once. Plus, the final monologue that Melissa McCarthy gives before a judge felt too contrived and unnatural. But these are small qualms of an otherwise terrific film anchored by an outstanding performance from a comedic actress showing the world that she is a lot more than just a clown meant to amuse us, but also an artist with a lot of depth and hopefully a lot more to give. This is a long way from Melissa McCarthy’s Academy Award-nominated breakout role in Bridesmaids (2011). Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an easy film to recommend and one that makes an unsympathetic loner one of the most relatable characters in a movie this year. 


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