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Can You Ever Forgive Me? Movie Review

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) movie poster Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Theatrical Release: October 19, 2018 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Marielle Heller / Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty (screenplay); Lee Israel (book)

Cast: Melissa McCarthy (Lee Israel), Richard E. Grant (Jack Hock), Dolly Wells (Anna), Jane Curtin (Marjorie), Ben Falcone (Alan Schmidt), Anna Deavere Smith (Elaine), Stephen Spinella (Paul), Gregory Korostishevsky (Andrei), Christian Navarro (Kurt), Pun Bandhu (Agent Doyle), Erik LaRay Harvey (Agent Solonas), Brandon Scott Jones (Glen), Shae D'Lyn (Nell), Rosal Colon (Rachel), Marc Evan Jackson (Lloyd)


Melissa McCarthy's unlikely movie star status took a hit this year with two underperforming comedies: The Happytime Murders,
a puppet satire she can't take much blame for, and Life of the Party, a stale vehicle she co-wrote with her husband Ben Falcone. Now, arriving at the perfect time to erase the memory of those duds, we get our introduction to Melissa McCarthy, serious actor.

McCarthy is not completely new to drama. She got her start on "Gilmore Girls" and has some less than comedic film credits to her name. But since Bridesmaids (2011) turned her into an Oscar nominee and then inevitable leading lady, her shtick has clearly been comedy as the bold, likable funnywoman. In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy is still funny, but not likable and this low-budget Fox Searchlight indie is more interested in making you think and feel than laugh.

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" stars Melissa McCarthy as biographer turned letter forger Lee Israel.

McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a lifelong New Yorker who had some very modest success as the author of biographies of Estιe Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead. When the film opens in 1991, Israel loses a menial office job and can't get in touch with her agent (Jane Curtin), who has no interest in the new biography she's writing of late vaudeville star Fanny Brice. Even Lee's cat, the only dependable source of affection in her life, is steering clear of her, silently suffering from some unknown ailment.

Upon discovering a personal letter from her latest biography subject, and selling it to a bookstore, Israel realizes there is a way to resume the flow of money into her life: forging letters from famous people. With a number of old typewriters and a knack for imitating literary voices, the suddenly broke author crafts letters by Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and others in a most convincing fashion. She has no trouble finding interested, gullible buyers and starts walking away with hundreds of dollars in cash on a regular basis.

Lee somewhat confides in a new friend that has walked into her life, the suave English vagabond Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who becomes her daily drinking buddy and also occasional catsitter. Hock gets mixed up in the criminal actions that swiftly put Lee on the FBI's radars. As sellers become alerted to the apparent rampant fraud, Lee's newfound financial comfort could disappear in an instant and it does.

The vagabond Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) becomes drinking buddy, best friend, catsitter and accomplice to Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy).

The fascinating true story of Israel reaches the big screen from a script by Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money, Enough Said) and Jeff Whitty, who won a Tony for Avenue Q and here makes his film writing debut. Adapting the real Israel's 2008 tell-all memoir, the screenplay compels with a flavorful, unglamorized depiction of the desperation that could drive an intelligent person to white collar criminality.
It's a fascinating portrait that is fully aware of the unique value Israel's brand of forgery holds as a creative outlet. It's also nearly a two-hander because the script gives almost as much time and attention to Grant, a 35-year veteran you at best might find vaguely familiar for turns in films like Gosford Park, Penelope, Logan, and Spice Word, as it does to its pre-title billed star. Whether embellished or not, the friendship between the flamboyant old gay man and the abrasive middle-aged lesbian more than holds our attention through the brisk runtime. In just her second directing credit, Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) gets mileage out of a dreary wintry setting that seems to befit Israel's life and her criminality.

Though she has gravitated towards broad physical and verbal comedy (to great commercial success), it's always been apparent that McCarthy has some dramatic chops too. She showed them in her supporting role in St. Vincent and she shows them off even more here. It's tempting to be cynical and consider how going frumpy and unattractive has resulted in Oscar wins before (Charlize Theron in Monster, Nicole Kidman in The Hours). But the awards hopes around this film do not demand such a negative reading. If comedies garnered the same respect as dramas from awards committees, McCarthy already would have won an Oscar for Bridesmaids and at least flirted with follow-up nominations. But they don't and so here we are. McCarthy's performance is not a cheap physical transformation but an interesting, layered characterization of an ostracized underdog who earns our empathy through a frequently impolite, bad-mannered exterior.

McCarthy (Best Actress) and Grant (Supporting Actor) are this film's best hopes at competing for awards. The film as a whole may not be flashy enough for the Oscars; remember Foxcatcher somehow missed a Best Picture nomination four years back. But Fox Searchlight has steered many recent films to Oscar glory and had last year's top two performers in Best Picture winner The Shape of Water and presumed runner-up Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, so don't count this out of the running. Depending on the film's reception and what else is to come, an Adapted Screenplay nod seems attainable also. And while this may just be a one-time departure from McCarthy's bread and butter, hopefully she remains open to more dramatic fare because this is her best film to date.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: The Old Man & the Gun • A Star Is Born • First Man
Melissa McCarthy: Life of the Party • The Happytime Murders • The Boss • Identity Thief • St. Vincent • Tammy • Ghostbusters
Richard E. Grant: Jackie • The Player • Logan • Bram Stoker's Dracula • The Iron Lady
Directed by Marielle Heller: The Diary of a Teenage Girl | Written by Nicole Holofcener: Please Give
Foxcatcher • War Dogs • Catch Me If You Can • The Hoax • The Big Short

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Reviewed October 7, 2018.

Text copyright 2018 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures, TSG Entertainment, and Archer Gray Productions.
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