CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Marielle Heller

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Jane Curtin, Steven Spinella, Christian Navarro, Anna Deveare Smith.

Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on a true story about a struggling writer who, in the early 90s, forged a number of letters from prominent celebrities. It’s a strange story about the creative process and the hardships faced by writers, but it gives Melissa McCarthy, better known for her raucous comedies, a straight dramatic role that has been earning her plenty of praise.

Lee Israel (played by McCarthy, who looks deliberately dowdy here) is a 51-year old celebrity biographer who is struggling to keep her head above water – broke, lonely, alcoholic, bitter and acerbic, she is not a very nice or warm or lovable person who prefers cats to people. She has eked out a living writing biographies of famous people from the 40s and 50s, and several of her books were on the New York Times bestseller lists. But times have changed and no-one is interested in reading them, her publisher Marjorie (Jane Curtin, great in a small role) tells her when refusing to give her an advance for her next book.

But then while researching her new book on legendary vaudeville performer Fanny Brice (who was played on screen by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) she stumbles across a faded old typewritten letter and is able to sell it to a literary dealer. Realising the potential in creating forgeries using an old typewriter and paper she is soon using her knowledge of deceased celebrities to create colourful epistles from the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. The money begins to roll in and she enlists the help of Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), a flamboyantly gay coke dealer recently released from prison, to help in the scam. Israel feels able to open up to Jack about her fears and insecurities and doubts. The enterprise proves to be quite lucrative until a couple of elite collectors raise doubts about their authenticity and eventually the FBI is on the case.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the 2008 memoir of the same name written by Israel detailing her notorious exploits. The book has been adapted to the screen by Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing, etc), and Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q, etc), his first feature length screenplay. Holofcener was originally tapped to direct the film until original star Julianne Moore left the project citing creative differences, and she was replaced by Marielle Heller, and this is her sophomore feature following the well-regarded independent drama The Diary Of A Teenage Girl. Her direction is laid back and the unhurried pace perfectly suits the material.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a caustic comedy/drama and character study with the two central characters trading barbs and putdowns with glee. McCarthy, who replaced Moore, is earning serious awards buzz for her performance as Israel, a prickly, acerbic and self-obsessed character who is not as brash or aggressive as most of the other roles she has played in her career. She brings plenty of nuance and unexpected layers to her performance. She also brings an edge of vulnerability, desperation and even self-doubt to the performance, and makes her a sympathetic character.

Grant relishes one of his best roles in years as the flamboyant rogue, arguably his most memorable characterisation since Withnail & I, and he draws big laughs. But there is a also a sadness to his character as he laments the many friends who have died from AIDS in recent years. He and McCarthy develop a great chemistry and odd couple dynamic that works a treat. Dolly Wells (from Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, etc) also registers strongly as Anne, a bookshop owner who is impressed with Lee but who is due for a major disappointment.

The film is set in New York in the early 1990s, and production designer Stephen Carter (Birdman, etc) has done a superb job of capturing the era and the film is steeped in authenticity with its quaint old-fashioned bookshops and its dive bars. But he has also done a great job of creating Israel’s cluttered and dingy apartment and Julius’, a legendary gay bar which was Jack’s favoured hangout. Brandon Trost’s cinematography is suffused with a nostalgic palette. There is a jazz influenced score composed by Heller’s brother Nate, and some New York jazz standards on the terrific atmospheric soundtrack.

★★★☆

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