Lee Israel was a real person, a once-promising writer who turned to forging famous letters in order to pay her bills. More to the point, Israel enjoyed her highly illegal practice of composing letters from famous, deceased authors (like Dorothy Parker), as she was being paid for work that was highly scrutinized and doted after. Suddenly, her words were worth hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars, even as they were replications of far more established literary legends. Israel knew what she was doing was wrong but, for the first time, experienced the kind of success that has always eluded her. After all, if she had no voice as a writer, was it wrong to use the words of dead authors in order to pay for her cat’s medication?
Melissa McCarthy plays Israel as single, lonely, and caustic, a writer in a dry spell living in a filthy New York apartment with her cat. Israel’s initial attempt at composing fake letters leads to a realization that there’s a demand for such items, causing Israel to become prolific and especially good at tapping into the inner voices of her literary heroes. Her biggest mistake: letting Jack Hock (played by Richard E. Grant), a local barfly and her only friend, in on her scam.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is drab and straightforward in its filmmaking and visual design. This is performance-driven and compelling as a character study and actor’s showcase. It’s encouraging, even a little exhilarating, to see McCarthy succeed in a dramatic role after witnessing her walk through one bad comedic vehicle after another. Coming after a movie where she snorts drugs with foul mouthed hand puppets, her take on Israel is not only a return to form but represents her best screen work since St. Vincent.
A date scene, where Israel awkwardly attempts to reach out to a bookstore clerk (movingly played by Dolly Wells), offers some of the best acting McCarthy has done to date. As strong as McCarthy is, the film is stolen by Grant. His spectacular turn steals the film, as Grant’s flamboyantly irresponsible, unpredictable character gives the film a jolt every time he appears.
The screenplay by Nicole Holfcener and Jeff Whitty can only go so deep in exploring the inner workings of these real-life characters, but McCarthy and Grant evoke the hostile distance and vulnerability of their characters. Can You Ever Forgive Me holds our attention, even as the presentation by director Marielle Heller is awfully simple. Once the situation is established, it’s clear where the film is going and what points it needs to check off before concluding. Yet, as real-life crime tales go, this one has enough bitter humor, oddball touches (like the use of Israel’s cat as a dramatic device), and surprising dramatic power to matter.
In addition to the two leads being so strong (and Wells injecting much needed humanity), Anna Deavere Smith’s terrific cameo appearance leaves a rich impression. While he’s guilty of directing too many of McCarthy’s failed screen vehicles, character actor Ben Falcone (who is married to McCarthy) is wonderful in the role of an authenticator who Israel unwisely crosses. McCarthy’s final scene with Grant is a quietly powerful master class (so is her bit with Deavere Smith on a park bench).
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is perhaps too tame to evoke comparison to the best films about practiced imposters (Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is a masterful take on the subject). Still, it’s great to see McCarthy and the always enjoyable Grant find the core of their sad but fascinating characters. Its best scenes leave a bruise.
Rated R/106 min.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is showing Saturday, Jan. 12 at 10:30am and on Wednesday, Jan 16 at 7:30pm, for Regency Kihei Cinemas Indie Film Days
Image courtesy IMDB