Directed by: Marielle Heller
Premise: Based on true events. Nonfiction writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) struggles to make ends meet. She discovers a collectors market for notes written by deceased celebrities and begins fabricating letters.
What Works: Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a story about loneliness and desperation and the movie has a lot going on underneath the surface. Lee Israel was a nonfiction writer who specialized in biographies of entertainment figures from the early years of Hollywood. Actress Melissa McCarthy and the filmmakers go through pains to make it clear that Israel is not a likable person. At the start of the picture, Israel is fired from a copyediting position for drinking on the job, she has alienated everyone in her professional life, and she lives in a poorly kept apartment where her only companion is a cat. Lee’s single human companion is Jack Hock, a homeless but charming rogue played by Richard E. Grant. He is the one person who she can stand (and vice versa) but he’s also dishonest with her and with everyone else. That makes them uneasy partners in a scheme to defraud collectors with fabricated letters. But the two of them are bonded by desperation and a shared melancholia. McCarthy and Grant are great together. Their banter is fun and they have an easy rapport that feels authentic. They are also apparently the only friend either one of them has and it is heartbreaking when that relationship comes apart. This is one of McCarthy’s best performances and she captures the contradictory nature of someone who craves human connection while pushing everyone away; McCarthy is doubly impressive because she’s also able to do that with the audience and make this fundamentally unlikable person empathetic. Although she’s doing something dishonest and unethical, McCarthy makes Israel so accessible that we don’t want to see her get caught. The film’s themes are matched by an appropriately drab visual style. Most of the story takes place in the fall and winter months and the film’s color scheme and cinematography possess a vividly cold feel that emphasize the characters’ loneliness.
What Doesn’t: Like most stories about a lie, it’s fairly obvious where Can You Ever Forgive Me? is going. Nothing in it is all that surprising. But as is the case in most movies based on real life, the draw of the story is not in the “what” but in the “why” and the “how “and the exploration of the characters and in that respect Can You Ever Forgive Me? is continually engaging and even heartbreaking.
Bottom Line: Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an impressive mix of true crime and character study. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant inhabit complex characters and McCarthy gives one of her best performances.
Episode: #728 (December 9, 2018)