Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on a true story, set in 1991, that finds struggling 51-year old New York-based author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) out of a job, and struggling with vet bills and rent arrears. In desperation, she sells a personal letter she once received from Katharine Hepburn. Later attempting to repeat this by selling a letter she’d stumbled across written by Fanny Brice (actress, comedienne, and subject of Lee’s latest book), she finds that she is able to increase the ‘value’ of the letter by adding a bit of colour of her own.
This sets Lee off on a rash of forging activity: creating a range of counterfeit letters purporting to be by the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Louise Brooks. Her sole confidante and accessory being newly acquired friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). Can Lee stay one step ahead of the memorabilia world’s suspicions long enough to clear herself financially, and to work out what she wants from life?
Melissa McCarthy’s fame as a comedic actress is enough to spark inherent interest in Can You Ever Forgive Me? It is less a matter of whether a comedy performer can succeed in a dramatic role, as there have been many examples over the years of comedy performers shifting effortlessly between the two disciplines: Bill Murray, Jim Carrey and, we must remember, even Tom Hanks began as a comedic actor. It is of more interest to discover the tone that the actor will adopt.
In the case of Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he stripped his performance back entirely, playing it as an introvert, and very softly spoken. That tends to be the way more often than not: a comedic actor will work very hard to show us they are ACTING! Very dowdy clothes choices, very dialled back performances, and, when it doesn’t work, much of what made them a star lost in translation. Early trailers and screenshots from this film really did spark that fear that we would be seeing a showcase to prove McCarthy could ACT! Whilst often worthy, this rarely leads to an entertaining product. When it is also considered that originally attached as lead was Julianne Moore, it was hard to see how anything of McCarthy’s natural talents would be a fit (though the IT Crowd’s Chris O’ Dowd as the original Jack Hock was, conversely, a more comedic choice than Richard E. Grant).
It is very pleasing that the end result showcases a terrific performance from Melissa McCarthy. She is able to channel much of her comedic persona into the role of Lee Israel, as the character seems to be such a natural fit for her talents. This is strongly-related to her comedic persona, but laced with bitterness and a little misanthropy. This highlights that the line between comedy and drama can be very thin. Life has levity, and people – by and large – can have moments of great humour.
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Although her performance as a people-hating, closed book, using spiky barbs as a defence mechanism is largely without issue, it takes a while to ascertain, clearly, the tone of that performance, and of the film as a whole. Part of this is presentation, McCarthy is wearing the standard comedian-takes-an-important-role wardrobe of bad wig, dull, autumnal colours, and slightly dishevelled, both to imply poverty and a greater interest in more esoteric matters than clothing. Part of it comes from echoes of other films and performances.
Early in the film, Israel angrily confronts her agent over the general direction of her career, and the inability to secure sizeable advances, such as those awarded to Tom Clancy (a delusional mind-set, given Israel has written a couple of biographies, and Tom Clancy is, well, Tom Clancy). The pint-sized aggression, mixed with an agent’s withering assessment, couldn’t but evoke Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey talking to his agent, portrayed by Sydney Pollack, in 1982’s Tootsie. Tootsie, was a straight-up comedy, similarly dependent on an aggressive, ostracised talent being encouraged into a deception. Can You Ever Forgive Me? has a set-up that points squarely at the comedic caper movie.
This carries to the supporting performance from Richard E. Grant, as the flamboyant, personable Jack Hock. As Hock, Grant’s performance screams Withnail – from the alcoholism, to the long coats and offbeat way of living. Jack is a far warmer character, however, with his goals in life requiring him to be an expert in people pleasing: quite the opposite of Withnail’s approach. It is a fine performance, which builds a chemistry with McCarthy, leading to a feeling that these were the only two people who could have played these parts.
However well a film is cast, that feeling is rare, and to the credit of the two leads, and director Marielle Heller. It is a nice nod to the fact that the real Hock was a much younger man, of a very different physical type (Grant took only the cigarette holder from descriptions he’d read and heard), that when Israel discusses writing their story, Hock asks to be written as 29 years old and handsome.
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The film itself is a small tale, with musical and visual choices evoking 70s and 80s Woody Allen – this could easily have been from the same director as something like Hannah and her Sisters (though this is not as light as that film). The story reveals Israel to us very slowly. She starts irascible and a little drunken; then there are hints of light-fingered approach to the property of others; then, hints of a general inability to engage with the human race.
As the story unfolds, we learn, however, that Lee’s talents have developed in precise proportion to her limitations. She can write in the voice of others, as she is simply too scared to reveal her own voice if, indeed, she would even know what that voice sounds like. Hock and Israel seem like an unusual couple, but it makes complete sense that she would gravitate, as a sort-of-failed-author with an acute sense that she is failing to live up to her own expectations, toward a man with no plan, no goals, but able to live completely in the moment, without fear of repercussion or the views of family and friends.
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Here the film could have slipped into the cliché of the free spirit showing our protagonist how to enjoy life. Can You Ever Forgive Me? sidesteps this entirely by presenting Jack as a rounded, if eccentric character: he has problems in his life, and limitations as a decision maker, and the film will exact its price from him for this. Similarly, Lee Israel’s tale could be one of redemptive moralising. Without spoiling, it simply is not that at all.
Reaction to Can You Ever Forgive Me? will be driven by expectation. The film has no major flaws, outside of hair and make-up; but it is not any number of things cinema-goers may be expecting. It is not a caper film. It is not a story of redemption and learning? It is neither a comedy, nor a feel-good tearjerker. It may tease Tootsie, When a Man Loves a Woman, even Mrs Doubtfire in places; but Can You Ever Forgive Me? is simply about two flawed (and even unlikeable) people finding some fun and companionship in the most unusual of circumstances. Certainly, McCarthy could stand to do more like this – but maybe with her own hair next time.