Melissa McCarthy trades pratfalls and slapstick for wry wit and introspection in Marielle Heller‘s keenly observed biopic “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” McCarthy stars as biographer Lee Israel, whose brief time in the spotlight of the Manhattan publishing scene has all but been extinguished as the movie begins, leaving her bitter, lonely, and strapped for cash, which ultimately leads to a life of literary crime. It’s a compelling role for McCarthy, who seems to relish the opportunity to take on more serious material.
Not that the movie is without humor; Lee drops plenty of acerbic one liners at the expense of both herself and others, and she and friend/accomplice/rival Jack Hock (a delightfully arch Richard E. Grant) trade pithy barbs and digs as they bond over cheap cocktails in dive bars. But this is definitely not the kind of broad character or comedy that McCarthy is best known for. Lee is an introverted loner who can’t believe that anyone except her cat could truly love her. Her confidence wrecked by rejection (mostly in the form of Jane Curtin as her cuttingly dismissive agent), Lee is at a loss: She knows she can write, but no one will give her the chance.
Then an opportunity presents itself, and Lee can’t resist. She puts her familiarity with celebrated authors and her keen eye for detail to use producing (and then selling) forged letters from writers like Fanny Brice, Dorothy Parker, and more. Her scheme not only secures her the money she needs to pay rent and vet bills, but it gives her — for the first time in a long while — something to be proud of. Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”), working from a script by Nicole Holofcener (“Friends with Money,” “Lovely and Amazing”), does an excellent job making it clear how important Lee’s forgery is to her identity, which is ironic, considering how many personas she takes on while creating the letters. If people won’t listen to her voice, then it seems she’ll gladly fool them by speaking convincingly in others’ voices.
Lee isn’t an easy person to like, but she’s sympathetic. Credit for that goes to McCarthy’s vulnerable performance, Heller’s careful direction, and Holofcener’s well-chosen words. Can we ever forgive her? Yes, we can, because it’s not that difficult to imagine making similar choices in her circumstances. Assuming we had her way with a typewriter, of course!– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Susan Wloszczyna: The arrival of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is more than enough evidence that McCarthy is the real deal as she closes off her usual buoyant avenues of emoting for a darker, morose and complex persona – one paved in frustration and failed opportunity that is uniquely female in nature. Her usual brassy bravado is tucked away beneath a frumpy veneer of bitterness, disappointment and deeply seated resentment over anyone else’s success. Read full review.
Loren King Melissa McCarthy is, not surprisingly, terrific in this juicy dramatic role. Her subtle reactions reveal so much of Lee Israel’s brash personality and damaged soul that she turns this darkly funny tale about an oddball into a biting portrait of a writer raging from the margins. Read full review.
Marilyn Ferdinand: Melissa McCarthy has made a movie career out of playing tough, crude women, primarily in comedies, a trajectory that has boxed her talents in a rather disagreeable way. With her latest film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, based on the confessional memoir of convicted forger Lee Israel, McCarthy doesn’t so much escape her onscreen persona as find a serious role that gives that persona room to flower. Israel, known for her biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Estée Lauder, became infamous when, after failing to secure more work, made ends meet by forging and selling letters purportedly written by such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Noël Coward. The film chronicles the writer’s disheveled life, disagreeable personality, and marginalization by the literary community with wit and mounting sense of dread. Director Marielle Heller and coscreenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty believably recreate 1990s New York, a time when writers were still paid well for their work and independent bookstores were plentiful, and offers detailed scenes of how Israel plied her nefarious trade, as well as generous glimpses of the gay life of Israel and her friend and partner in crime, John Hock (Richard E. Grant). Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an absorbing, sad drama in which Israel comes to the conclusion that she was at her best as a
writer only when she was imitating the style of her betters.
Nell Minow: Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are both superb in this story of two lost and lonely people who can be selfish and careless but still somehow make us want them to come out all right. In small roles, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtain, and Anna Devere Smith create characters with the humanity and sense of place in the world that the lead characters struggle so hard to find.
Pam Grady: Melissa McCarthy delivers a career best performance in this funny, surprisingly moving biopic of writer Lee Israel, lush, misanthrope, cat lady (with all the stereotype implies), and biographer of celebrities no one wants to read about (Estee Lauder, Fanny Brice). On paper, no one should want to watch a movie about this nasty piece of work, but in adapting Israel’s memoir, McCarthy, writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and director Marielle Heller find the human heart beneath the bluster as desperation drives her toward a new, felonious profession as a forger of celebrity correspondence. Heller clearly has a blast recreating the last gasp of the old New York before gentrification swept the city’s character away. Richard E. Grant charms in the role of raffish Jack Hock, Lee’s co-conspirator and one of the few people on the planet able to breach her vitriolic defenses and forge a genuine friendship with her.
Anne Brodie: Melissa McCarthy’s extraordinary performance as Lee Israel, the literary swindler and forger, is inspired, complete and unforgettable. Her portrayal of the Hollywood biographer turned criminal in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is touched with genius. Read full review.
Jeanne Wolf: Melissa McCarthy boldly plays against her funny side in Can You Ever Forgive Me and there is already Oscar buzz surrounding her performance. You’ll barely recognize the brilliant comedian as a dumpy alcoholic loner struggling to rejuvenate her career as a writer. Behind that tough profane exterior are flashes of warmth in a lonely heart whose only friends are her cat and gay companion, Jack, strongly played by the always affecting Richard E. Grant. A little more of that warmth would be welcome but McCarthy seems ,determined not to milk the emotion as she slowly draws you in before hitting rock bottom and then finding a way to make a larcenous comeback. Whatever the flaws in the film you know that McCarthy will be displaying more of her dramatic power on the screen in the future and I’ll be looking forward to it.
Jennifer Merin Directed by Marielle Heller and co-scripted by Nicole Holofcener, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a truth-based based narrative about New York-based author and biographer Lee Israel, whose consistently unpleasant behavior and alcoholism derailed her writing career Penniless and verging on homelessness, Lee turns her talents to forging and selling letters from famous writers, emulating the styles of the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward with superb witticisms that outwit autograph collectors — until she’s found out. Starring as Lee, Melissa McCarthy shows complexity of character and depth of emotion that surpasses her previous turns. Brava!
Cate Marquis Director Marielle Heller builds an engrossing tale of someone falling into crime one step at a time, as well as a portrait of a talented person whose own flaws sabotage her. Aided by a perfect score featuring Billy Holiday and Lou Reed, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is by turns ironically funny and tragically sad. It makes for an intriguing trip, topped by what is easily the best performance that Melissa McCarthy has ever given. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore: Can You Ever Forgive Me? boasts not only spectacular performances but a script takes on mental health in a uniquely female-centric way. Melissa McCarthy is known for her over-the-top, physical character acting, though as real-life author Lee Isreal, she is subdued in her depression, anger, and alcoholism. These issues are dealt with realistically, not sugar coated for theatrical purposes. McCarthy shines in this more grounded role much in the way she did in St Vincent, alongside Bill Murray. The use of voiceover makes this film an absolute joy to watch. There have been few adaptations for the screen that have made me immediately Google the author’s original work. I already have it on my Xmas list this year. Not often do we delve into the female criminal mind. The intrigue here is a beautiful amalgamation of desperation, self-loathing, and the need to prove her talent. The tension is palpable as each of Lee’s creations makes it way into the world. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is sure to entertain audiences with its sharp wit and dark humor. Not to mention it’s a great reminder that Melissa McCarthy is worthy of challenging roles.
MaryAnn Johanson It’s interesting, isn’t it, how director Marielle Heller, writer Nicole Holofcener, and star Melissa McCarthy found freshness in their somewhat familiar tale of a clever criminal and her sticking it to the man. Often these stories cast their antiheroes as charming and nobly tragic, and render them as rather appealing rogues. But while there is much to admire in the film on the whole and in McCarthy’s stunning performance, none of it goes easy on Lee Israel, or lets her off the hook for her deeds. It’s typical of how women tend to be much harder on ourselves than men are, less likely to toot our own horns. It’s absolutely correct for this story… but then it would be absolutely correct for many of those other similar stories centered around men, and it’s not something we see a lot of.
Title: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Directors: Marielle Heller
Principal Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin
Release Date: October 18, 2018
Running Time: 106 minutes
Screenwriter: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
Distribution Company: Fox Searchlight
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin